This article is for the dynamic, entrepreneurial, and fearless leaders who oversee some of the most innovative organizations working today.
Recently, I shared an evening with three friends who run national nonprofits. It was pure luck that we happened to be at the same conference together, and so we took advantage of the opportunity to have drinks and dinner. The evening started with the typical conversation among friends — catching up on family, the latest gadgets, and, of course, the recent comings and goings of colleagues in the field. All that ended when I asked a question of my dinner companions: Are you afraid of what will happen to your organization after you leave?
They all looked at me and, in so many words, said, "Derrick, you know us. Our organizations are strong, our business models are sound, and we have individual donors and funders behind us that will continue to support us."
I stopped, looked at them in turn, and, because I know them well, finally said, "Let's forget the sound bites for a minute." They all looked uncomfortable. Then I said the one thing I was sure they were all thinking but unwilling to admit.
"You have to be kidding yourself to think that after you leave, your organizations are not going to lose something. You are the face of your organizations. Your experience, knowledge, dynamic presence, and confident demeanor are a big part of your organizations' sustainability equation. You tell stories and people listen. You talk about the latest issue that needs to be addressed, and funders start thinking about their next grant cycle. Yes, your organizations are sustainable, but each one of them has a weakness and it's you...and you...and you."
Before I go any further, let me back up and tell you a bit about my three friends. Each of them started a nonprofit to address a problem crying out for a solution, came up with an innovative solution to the problem, and built an organization that excelled in implementing that solution. Each organization boasts a robust program model, delivers much-needed services, and positively impacts the communities where they work. They also have loyal online followings, marketing departments that excel at branding, and fundraising teams that know how to make an ask. They're the kind of organizations that any accomplished leader would be happy to lead.
But when thinking about the sustainability of their organizations, my three friends had never taken into account the critical role that each of them has played in building their respective organization's support and following. Yes, organizational sustainability is predicated on recurring revenue and predictable fundraising performance. But every nonprofit organization is unsustainable in some way. It goes beyond the challenge of maintaining ongoing revenue; sustainability also has to do with the ability to effectively address a social problem, embrace risk, and build community awareness and support — year after year after year. And if all, or even most, of the responsibility for that is falling into your lap, well, it's time to start thinking about doing things differently.
How do you know if your organization is on the right side of the line? Here are a few signs:
- Every meeting you have with a funder leads to a request for a concept paper.
- When you talk to the media, volunteers and supporters flock to your door and/or flood your inbox and voicemail with messages.
- You are the only person in the organization to handle public speaking opportunities.
- When other staff members address a community forum, it is not uncommon for members of the audience to ask when you'll be arriving.
- When your organization is accorded public recognition, there is an expectation you will be present and will use the moment to motivate those in attendance to do superhuman things.
If any of the above has happened to your organization, take a moment to consider the following:
You are not the only expert. If you talk about your staff being experts, you need to walk the talk. Give them opportunities to shine. They need to be tweeting, blogging, speaking in public, and evangelizing at every opportunity. If you have built an organization that is centered around you, it is not a sustainable organization.
Be brilliant together. Create a competition that encourages staff to develop alternative business models and pitches that don't require you to sell them to funders. Why should your staff knock themselves out to be creative and think outside the box if you are always the one to present the organization's best ideas?
Let others communicate. Stop hogging the spotlight. Let others deliver your organization's message in the community and to the media. To paraphrase an old saying, "How can we miss you if you're always around?"
Be an introducer. Introduce your staff to key stakeholders in the community — and then leave them alone to get on with the business at hand. Your people are smart and savvy — or else you wouldn't have hired them. Trust them to do the right thing. They will love you for it, and your funders will respect you.
Absent yourself from some decisions. Create a time each week for your team to create a solution to a problem without you. Then let them implement it.
You've done an incredible job. The long hours of constantly being "on call" has helped your organization achieve a level of sustainability that you could only have dreamed about when you started. Now it's time to address the inherent unsustainability in this wonderful thing you've created by slowly removing yourself from the day-to-day operations of the organization. You are the person with the secret ingredient to your organization's recipe for long-term sustainability. And that ingredient is: Lead and get out of the way.