There are over 1.5 million nonprofits registered with the IRS and each one is functioning in a different phase of its life cycle. Each would benefit from analyzing foundational principles associated with its current chapter. Too often, multiple spinning plates of service recipient needs, fundraising, pursuing new programmatic possibilities, responding to stakeholder inquires, and other demands leave no obvious time for reflection on life cycle considerations.
At any point of organizational life, the board/administrative team should consider life cycle realities to make course adjustments in planning for the future. The infancy phase might be the most apparent, as capacity building has preeminence and the initial board assumes almost all “office” functions, consuming vast amounts of time and energy. Covering needed expertise via board member capabilities (e.g., legal, financial, strategic) is typically required.
Understanding your organization’s phase and inherent considerations is not an academic exercise—it is essential to strategic decision making, from board recruitment to programmatic considerations. For some, the infancy period covers many years. For others, there is a perfect storm of need/services/awareness/perceived competency that hurls a fledgling nonprofit one or two stages forward in a short space of time.
Knowing what comes next is critical—there are inevitable internal conflicts, such as whether to pursue all potential growth strategies versus controlled growth, or how and when board size should expand. When the board/staff team recognizes and vocalizes the inevitable tensions of each interval, productive discussions take place and tactical decisions are more informed.
At the other end of the life cycle spectrum, decades-old nonprofit organizations tend to focus on incremental metric improvement. Each executive director, board president, and officer wants to be seen as more impactful than their predecessor. What gets lost in this treadmill is whether there should be, in fact, a fundamental shift in how the mission is accomplished. Most life cycle diagrams will depict the need for a shift for renewal and relevancy; otherwise, the nonprofit will stagnate if not sputter towards extinction.
Outside experts can help ascertain whether a pivot is warranted at any phase of the nonprofit life cycle.