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January 20, 2022
Steps for Growing a New Nonprofit
By Stephen J. Lemire

Nonprofit organizations that are in their formative stages and trying to become better established may consider a number of practices to ensure their growth and enhance their effectiveness.

While many nonprofits are unique, most exhibit traits shared by many types and sizes of nonprofits. So although not all of the following ideas will apply to each new nonprofit (NPO), a number may be worthy of consideration.

1) Develop a Vision. Most nonprofits (one hopes all nonprofits) will develop a strategic plan as a roadmap to help guide the organization to meet its mission. Is it enough to invest time and energy to develop a plan and then have it end up buried on a bookshelf or in a hard drive? Absolutely not! It is vital that the NPO treat the strategic plan as a living document and make a commitment to review and update it on a regular basis. One helpful practice may be for the Executive Director to provide the Board of Directors with a quarterly progress report on all strategic plan goals. (Don’t forget to monitor your bylaws in the same manner.)

2) Offer Networking Opportunities. Many nonprofits, such as professional and trade associations, provide the invaluable service of connecting members from across different geographic regions and with varying levels of expertise. This connection gives members the opportunity to share experiences, express concerns, and ask questions of one another. Your NPO is a conduit for information sharing, thereby endorsing best practices as members learn from each other. Remember, these networking opportunities don’t have to occur only at your events; they also can be created electronically through forums posted on your website.

3) Share Information. The internet is the best means of communicating with your members in a timely and cost effective manner through postings and e-mail updates. However, too much information (too frequent e-mail notices, too many links) will cause your members to tune out the most important information. Identify the two or three main types of information that you want your constituents to receive and treat the remainder of the website as an add-on. For example, you may want your constituents to know that your website has the most up-to-date calendar of training programs and that it is their best resource for contact information for their peers. Then, your blast e-mails can just focus on emerging legislative and policy issues.

4) Present a Consistent Message. This is easier said than done. Yet doing so is a constant reinforcement of your mission. If your primary purpose is to educate your members, then your trainings and seminars are where you should put most of your effort. Likewise, if you exist to help your members in the legislative process, then put the bulk of your resources into providing tools to assist in advocacy efforts.

5) Organize a Hallmark Event. If there is one type of event that your NPO does well, keep doing it. And try to do it better every time! For some NPOs this may be an annual conference, a walk-a-thon, or a legislative forum. Your constituents will come to expect this event around the same time each year and gear up to network or fundraise to help improve the event year after year. This event will generate momentum that carries over into the following year and may generate revenue to help support your mission.

6) Be Fiscally Realistic. If you are a nonprofit service organization, your ultimate goal is to be able to meet your fixed expenses through dues, fees, and in-kind contributions. If accomplished, this will provide two distinct benefits. The first is that it will allow you the freedom to be creative in looking for ways to generate discretionary funds, such as the sale of quality products emblazoned with your organization’s name and logo. The second is that you can choose to pursue only those grants that can further your mission (rather than those needed to sustain you financially). Most commonly, these grants are small to midsized funds ($3,000-$5,000) offered by community-based foundations.

7) Maintain a Strong National Affiliation. If your NPO is a chapter of a national association, you and your counterparts across the country or region can help meet one another’s objectives, share experiences, and provide each other with access to best practice methods that are not state-specific.

8) Create Diverse Partnerships. The key is synergy. Chances are that there are other organizations in your region whose missions overlap with yours. Once you identify these prospective partners and the goals you have in common, you can generate greater resources to meet your shared needs. These types of efforts are particularly important to create a common voice for advocacy or to address broad needs such as workforce development and joint funding opportunities.

9) Hire Dedicated Staff. This step requires a serious commitment by your board leadership to hire sufficient staff to further your organization’s development. On reaching this point, your board must acknowledge that the organization has arrived at a critical stage and must invest in its continued growth and success or risk stagnation. Professional staff becomes necessary when the board can no longer manage its prior volunteer responsibilities because of your NPO’s expanding scope.

10) Remember Your Institutional History. The final step closes a loop that, in many ways, brings you back to the first step. In remembering and honoring why your nonprofit organization was founded, and by updating your strategic plan, you can assess the changing environment, meet ongoing challenges, and create promising new opportunities.

Stephen J. Lemire, the former executive director of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association and the Massachusetts Business Group on Health, works with executive directors on professional development and peer-to-peer training. Call him at 978-452-1436 or email
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