Often a nonprofit organization begins with little more than a need, a vision and someone willing to take action.
Anne Gingerich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, has seen it happen. An organization starts small and is rooted almost exclusively in the founder’s passion for the cause.
“That passion spreads and others want to join the cause,” she said.
But, advocating for the cause is the founder’s strength — not building and managing the infrastructure that comes with the organization’s success.
For example, a food bank in a rural county may grow from serving a few people to needing a massive warehouse. Now, the food bank needs to create new volunteer policies and practices, as well as addressing accounting and infrastructure issues. Employment needs are different and the founder needs to figure out livable wages and health care options.
Planning becomes a vital part of addressing those infrastructure needs.
Area nonprofits like Employment Skills Center, New Hope Ministries, Project SHARE, Carlisle CARES and Safe Harbour are not immune to challenges — internal and external — connected to their growth and to the planning that needs to happen to meet those challenges.
Nonprofit agencies respond to pressures in their systems, said Eric Saunders, executive director of New Hope Ministries.
Those pressures can come from controllable internal changes, or from external forces that affect the organization. Both types of change are cause for asking the questions that affect a nonprofit’s planning.
“Where am I seeing the environment, the marketplace, taking us regardless of our client needs?” said Wendell Hollinger, president of Safe Harbour.
Nonprofits dealing with housing issues, for example, must adhere to federal guidelines that are pushing nonprofits to move away from shelter programs to housing-first programs. If a nonprofit receives federal or state funding, it must adjust to meet the guidelines.
“It’s not necessarily what our customers need, but we have to adjust to it,” Hollinger said.
External motivators have also changed the programming offered at Employment Skills Center.
“Back in the day, getting your GED was the end goal. Now, it’s employment,” said Margi Weitzel, executive director.
In response, Employment Skills Center has added forklift training programs and certified logistics technician training. It has also started an environmental technician training program to prepare local residents for employment in the redevelopment of former industrial sites in Carlisle and in other areas throughout the county. The program is being funded by an Environmental Protection Agency grant secured through the Redevelopment Authority of Cumberland County.
Financial pressures can also force a response. During the recession, the number of people served at New Hope Ministries doubled, but the agency’s income did not.
“That, for us, said we have to use volunteers differently,” Saunders said.
What the agency found was that volunteers weren’t using their talents in the most efficient way. Staff members still fill critical positions, but New Hope has found that sufficiently skilled and motivated volunteers could do just about anything. Now, volunteers are used for case management, teaching and many other roles that make them vital to delivering the agency’s services.
Some challenges to a nonprofit organization come from its own success in serving the community.
“We went from a church ministry in 12-13 years’ time to just on the cusp of a medium-sized nonprofit,” said Shari Bellish, executive director of Carlisle CARES.
The generic bylaws were written for small ministries, and its personnel policies worked well when there were only a few employees. Now, the organization is backtracking to catch up on the administrative side. It has restructured everything from staff to resources to accommodate the growing needs of the organization, Bellish said.
That’s where an organization like PANO can help. The organization offers templates of policies for internal financial control, advocacy, lobbying and more to its members, Gingerich said.
Need for planning
“Nonprofits are all about having big hearts and helping people, but they have to run like a business,” Saunders said.
He understands that running a nonprofit as a business can also be a criticism in that the organization can become too focused on that and lose its sense of mission.
Planning, however, becomes part of the way that nonprofits serve others.
Planning is more difficult for organizations with the mission of meeting crisis needs, Gingerich said. It’s hard for them to take a step back and do what is needed for crisis planning, but it is one of the areas that must be prioritized to develop the organization’s infrastructure.
“Planning allows you to respond more effectively and efficiently in a crisis,” Gingerich said.
Or, the plan can help the agency to better respond to opportunities.
For example, New Hope Ministries accepted an invitation to open an office in Hanover five years ago. Accepting that invitation “brought so much support to the agency,” Saunders said. That has led to a center opening in New Oxford and mobile food pantries in East Berlin and Littlestown. The agency is in early discussions on opening a center in Biglerville.
In creating a strategic plan, Gingerich said the organization should start with a vision. Often, she advises the organization to think about how the community would be different 20 years in the future if the nonprofit is successful. The mission statement grows out of what the organization wants to do and where it wants to go.
The mission statement then gives rise to organizational planning, which includes issues like marketing, sustainability and succession planning among other issues.
Succession planning is becoming an important issue across the state as baby boomers enter retirement, with multiple executive directors of nonprofits among them. It can be “an exciting time of change,” Gingerich said, but it also means the organization loses the passion of its founder.
Organizations can flounder when a director leaves unless leadership and organizational knowledge are developed throughout the agency’s staff. Saunders said New Hope is trying to crosstrain its staff in all aspects of the agency’s operations, using vacations as training time to allow people to step into a job temporarily to gain experience.
“It shouldn’t come as a surprise that you’re going to have turnover in an organization. It’s not if. It’s when,” Saunders said.
Bellish recalls having a medical emergency three or four years ago at the same time as the board president. That made her ask: “Who is running the show?”
“All I could think about was all these people out on the street again,” she said. It was like a parent who was afraid for her children.
The incident spurred Bellish to direct the board to come up with a succession plan, which, she said, is still a work in progress.
“If you’re a good leader, that organization can keep going because of the staff that is there and the volunteers that are there,” Bellish said.
Creating the plan
Convinced of the need for a plan, the organization has options for creating it. They can do it internally, or they can hire an outside organization to assist with the process.
“A good strategic plan is looking at all pillars of an organization,” said Monica Gould, president of Strategic Consulting Partners, which recently assisted Project SHARE with its strategic plan.
Conversations with board members and staff actually come second in the strategic planning process, Gould said. Data collection must come first as the consultant looks at the organization’s mission, vision, staff, policies, operations and opportunities, among other issues.
Consultants also use tools like online and in-person surveys, focus groups and interviews from a variety of stakeholders — volunteers, staff, board members — to complete the picture. Having outsiders collect the data can yield different results than what may have been collected had interviews been done in-house. Staff, donors and volunteers are all quicker to share their concerns with someone outside of the organization, Gould said.
Conducting these interviews and collecting the data takes a minimum of four months, but “it can be up to a year depending on the complexity,” Gould said.
With that information in hand, the consultant identifies key areas the organization needs to examine. Then, at least one, and maybe up to four, retreats are scheduled with the organization’s leadership to discuss those key areas of focus. Ultimately, the board decides where it wants to go and builds the resources to do so.
“It has to be their plan. It has to be what they want,” Gould said.
Still, the consultant may be called upon to deliver information to the organization it does not want to hear. Gould said the consultant’s fiduciary responsibility is to the organization, not to individuals within the organization. That means the consultant will do what is right for the organization, which may not be in the best interest of any one individual.
“Sometimes we have to deliver very difficult information,” Gould said. “But we have to do what is right for the organization.”
What happens to the plan after its creation depends on the client, Gould said. Sometimes a client will do the work to implement key milestones and measure success on their own. Others will continue to use the consultant’s services as a coach to implement the plan with meetings happening on a quarterly, monthly or daily basis, depending on the need.
“We’re also strategic implementers. We help put the mechanisms in place to help you get where you want to go,” Gould said.
Organizations taking an internal approach to strategic planning have employed different methods to create their plans.
Bellish has taken a planning cue from the case management techniques used at the organization. The people who come to Carlisle CARES on a daily basis are in crisis. Case managers ask them what tomorrow would look like if a miracle were to happen overnight. The case manager uses that image to break the dream into a plan by looking at what has to happen to make it a reality.
“Pretty soon, they start to realize this is doable,” Bellish said.
The same process is being used for strategic planning. The staff has gone through the same exercise, envisioning what tomorrow looks like if a miracle were to happen for Carlisle CARES.
“I’m hoping it will provide good input for the board,” Bellish said.
Safe Harbour has taken a committee-based approach. Hollinger said each board committee was instructed to create a strategic plan for its committee. He then brought the individual plans together to find where ideas overlapped. The one-year process yielded 10 goals for the organization.
Plans into action
Strategic planning is a critical role of the governing board of the nonprofit, Gingerich said. The board has to buy into the plan and monitor the progress being made by the staff.
Diane Baltaeff, president of the board of directors at Project SHARE, said its strategic plan gives the organization a roadmap that helps it to stay focused and intentional as it requires constant assessing.
The organization is doing that now with all of its programs, said Bob Weed, interim executive director of Project SHARE. In doing so, they are asking what the agency wants to accomplish and what the agency needs to do it. It’s important to include the staff in such discussions.
“I learned long ago the people closest to getting it done usually have the best ideas,” Weed said.
Weed said the agency held a “dream session” with its whole team, asking what it could do better to not just put food in the basket but also to lift people up.
“They have a sense — even for a short time — that I’m worth fussing over,” Weed said.
The challenge with assessing outcomes in a nonprofit is that updates are hard to come by. When a person no longer needs the agency’s services, they rarely check back in.
“When they are done, they’re done,” Weed said.
Having the right board members is also essential to the success of the organization.
“Diverse is the magic word for a board,” Bellish said.
Nonprofits look at the center of influence for a potential board member, whether they can bring funding expertise, networking capacity, or both. They also ask what skills the board member can offer, and what their motivation for serving is. For example, Weitzel said Employment Skills Center is looking for representatives from the warehouse industry since that has become such a factor in area employment.
“You need commitment. You need people who are going to do something,” Weitzel said.
Doing something, after all, is why the organization was formed in the first place. The goal is to alleviate the problem identified by the founder. That could happen under one board of directors or one executive director, or it could continue for decades. The key is to assure the work continues until it is no longer needed.
“Let’s work ourselves out of a job or put systems in place that will allow the work to go on long after we’re gone,” Gingerich said.