The Nonprofit Lifecycles approach is a self-assessment framework that helps organizations gain a better understanding of their current state, and make improvements.
This framework was created by Susan Kenny Stevens, PhD. Susan has worked as a consultant with nonprofits for over 30 years. Over that time she realized that it was important to meet groups where they are at.
To do that required a common language about the elements of organizational health. Susan established the Nonprofit Lifecycles approach as an effective tool for comprehending the intimate interconnections that comprise nonprofits.
Susan’s approach has been successfully implemented in the USA, where she has trained many consultants in this method, creating many programs in several cities. Susan and her colleagues are pursuing the formation of the Nonprofit Lifecycles Institute to certify and deploy trained consultants and continue the legacy of successful transformation of nonprofits.
In 2017, I was invited by the Nonprofit Lifecycles Institute to attend a visioning conference in Arizona. It was a great experience, and I met some brilliant consultants who are driving “organizational capacity” (making sure the nonprofit has what it takes to change) and “resilience” (the ability to bounce back and effectively respond to challenges) in the nonprofit sector to build stronger communities.
The Table as Metaphor
Nonprofit Lifecycles describes a nonprofit organization as a table. The mission is balanced on top of the table, and the organization’s programs form the table top. The programs are supported by four legs:
- Financial Resources
- Administrative Systems
The stronger and more balanced these legs are, the better overall health of the organization.
The Nonprofit Lifecycle approach asks the organization to assess itself overall, as well as each of its table legs against the lifecycle stages.
Here’s a free resource from the Nonprofit Lifecycles Institute: Self-Assessment Form
More about the Lifecycle Stages in a minute…
Consultants are Key
This process relies on independent consultants. It is usually a grantmaker like a government funder or private foundation who will pay for a consultant to work with the organization to do the assessment.
The consultant works for the group not the funder, and keeps everything confidential.
This is important because organizations can be in denial about which stage they feel they are in, and they may feel compelled to put their best foot forward when dealing with a funder.
Usually a team from the nonprofit made up of board members (especially if they are founders of the organization), managers and sometimes staff, will meet with the consultant to do a self-assessment.
The more honest the review, the more accurate an understanding the organization gains of its strengths and weaknesses, and the better the outcomes are.
The advantages of this approach are:
- Establishes a starting point for self-diagnosis
- Identifies misalignments across the organization
- Daylights weaknesses without assigning blame
- Sets realistic expectations for change
Nonprofit Lifecycle Stages
The framework includes sophisticated descriptions of each stage, and you should consult the book to gain a good understanding. Here I’ve boiled them down into some basic concepts…
- People perceive a need in the community
- This sparks a founding idea and a vision of what could be
- The beginning stage of operations
- Energy and passion are at their highest
- Systems generally lag far behind
- Demands for programs and services increase
- Don’t have the systems and structures to support the demand
- Nonprofit has a good reputation
- Provides steady, relevant and vital services to the community
- Is well-organized, solid and secure
- Nonprofit ignores client needs
- Makes “safe” status quo decisions
- Funding tapers off as programs become less relevant
- Unable to cover operating expenses
- Reputation tanks
- The shit hits the fan
- The nonprofit makes an honest self-assessment
- Takes action and makes some difficult/painful decisions
- Begins to become relevant again
- Regains confidence of funders, reputation rebounds
- Has lost its will, reason and energy to exist
- The nonprofit folds
- Not necessarily a negative outcome
- Can be achieved respectfully and gracefully
Here’s an example I have made up to help illustrate the stages:
Social Action Society
A social services organization is 10 years old, started by a firebrand Founder who still holds the reins as Executive Director. Despite boasting a solid reputation for several years, the organization is now facing a crisis of financial resources and doesn’t know how this occurred nor how to address it.
Programs – Mature
- still mostly in touch with community needs
- Founder has high focus on programming
Management – Growth
- always more to do, not enough hours in a day
- longtime staff are underpaid and exhausted
- some new staff are experts, may be paid more
- Founder not interested in changes to management structure
Governance – Start-Up
- “rubber stamp” board
- board members have personal connection to Founder
- defer to Founder in decision-making
- don’t take responsibility – no “ownership”
Financial Resources – Decline
- Founder makes poor spending decisions
- no investment in new systems
- where costs should be cut, no action
- rely on past experience, instead of current reality
Administrative Systems – Growth
- systems are out-dated, require substantial investment to overhaul
- not meeting the requirements/needs of programs, managers, compliance
What does success look like?
The nonprofit has:
- developed a common language to describe where it’s at
- invested in meaningful discussions about where it wants/needs to go
- taken advantage of leadership team to promote shared ownership
- created a plan to strengthen capacity
- developed capacity beyond where it started
- achieved some or all desired outcomes
Is your organization baffled by the difficulties it faces?
Could you or your organization use a neutral third party to help you assess your current state, identify organizational misalignments, and help you craft a realistic plan?