Today is the last of our Developing Your Board Leadership Series. For the last 6 weeks, we’ve been hearing from grantees who have recently taken part in our Board Leadership Training Series workshops and are now telling their stories about how they are applying what they’ve learned to their organizations.
Allison Trimarco of Creative Capacity kicked off the series with some really helpful and humorous advice about fundraising. We also heard about fundraising from Matt Finlay, board member of the Mayo Center for the Performing Arts. Ruth Fost of Pushcart Players talked about organizational succession planning while Liz Mitchell of the Printmaking Council of New Jersey shared her organization’s turnaround story. John Gattuso of the Hunterdon Land Trust Alliance discussed losing and choosing board members, while Eddie Rogers of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey explained working through a major transition. Today, we hear from Maleyne Syracuse of the Peters Valley Craft Center and more about Nonprofit Lifecycles, a signature workshop of the Dodge Foundation’s Technical Assistance offerings.
A Nonprofit Is More Likely To Reach Its Programmatic Goals If It Is Well Managed
In her book, Nonprofit Lifecycles, Susan Kenny Stevens identifies the Seven Stages of Nonprofit Capacity:
According to Ms. Stevens, mature nonprofits have reached the stage in their lifecycle in which they are “well established, operating smoothly and…provide consistently relevant and high quality services.”
Peters Valley Craft Center celebrates its 40th Anniversary this year. After 40 years, one might expect Peters Valley to be a mature organization. But it’s not quite that simple. Maturity doesn’t necessarily come automatically or easily or simply with time. Nonprofit Lifecycles has been a valuable and vital tool for our Board and Staff in assessing Peters Valley and identifying those things we need to do to make PV a truly mature organization.
I’ve been on the Board at Peters Valley for a little over 10 years. And for as long as I have been involved and for many years before that, Peters Valley has experienced cycles of boom and bust: one or two good years of balanced budgets or even surplus followed by years of deficit and struggle to pay off debt.
We thought the answer was simply more money. Emergency appeals (“Help Save Peters Valley!”) were successful but when you launch an emergency appeal every 2-3 years, it’s no longer an emergency. The answer isn’t simply more money—more money is a tactical solution—it certainly helps in the short term but often, as it did in our case, the quick fix masks deeper issues.
The answer wasn’t more programs either. Like many nonprofits, PV tried to “program” its way out of its boom and bust cycle. But while new programs are grand to talk about and fundable in the short term, over the long term ours were not self-sustaining and created drag on organizational resources.
Recurring cycles of boom and bust are exhausting—for the Board, the Staff, donors and constituents. Peters Valley needed to create a sustainable turnaround.
Using the lifecycle framework, the PV Board saw that organization was stuck in a pattern of flipping from “Growth Stage” to “Decline” and back. While PV did not slip irretrievably into the Terminal stage, Peters Valley never fully matured either. One of the reasons the organization did not fully mature was that much of its administrative/management systems and infrastructure did not really progress past the Start-up stage.
Mature organizations must have a healthy balance between (1) their mission and programs, (2) their capital and (3) their organizational capacity. These are the 3 legs of the stool. If any one or more of them is not as strong as the others, the stool topples over. Peters Valley has a vibrant mission and wonderful programs. It has capital – some times more than others. But it had not fully developed the organizational capacity it needed to fully achieve its programmatic goals: enough people in the right jobs, all the proper space and systems and all the appropriate processes that would allow it to do everything it needs to do and do well.
I want to be clear that this is not a criticism of the PV Staff. Peters Valley has great, hardworking and dedicated staff. But even the best, most hardworking staff need – frankly deserve – strong organizational capacity. Without a systematic approach to the organization’s growth—a truly strategic division of labor, evolved systems and planning and detailed policies and procedures—it’s just not possible to run an organization as complex as PV efficiently. Peters Valley offers over 150 two to five-day workshops, uses more than 100 guest instructors, welcomes more than 700 students (many of whom live and eat on campus), and operates more than 20 separate buildings, including studios, dorms and a kitchen, many of which are historic structures. And that’s just our Summer Adult Workshop Program!
Peters Valley Craft Center store
So why did Peters Valley not fully develop the organizational capacity it needed? It’s not uncommon for an organization’s programs to get ahead of its capacity and there are many reasons for this. I will mention one that is probably relevant to other organizations: an overreliance on volunteers. As PV grew and its programs evolved, especially when resources were slim, we were blessed with many dedicated volunteers, especially Board members, who were more than willing to jump in and help out where needed. This is great for a nonprofit in the Start-up or early Growth Stage. But as an organization matures, it can’t continue to simply rely on the good will of volunteers. As volunteers came and went, often there was no paper trail and limited institutional memory about who had done what, what had worked, what hadn’t worked or when things needed to be done. It is possible to use volunteers successfully (we have an excellent volunteer who runs our annual craft fair very successfully), but it takes structure, systems and organization!
So where are we today? As I said earlier, capacity building isn’t necessarily easy and it is the Board’s responsibility to ensure that the organization has the resources it needs to build capacity, a responsibility that the PV Board has embraced. Efforts are underway to ensure an appropriate division of labor among staff members, identify functions that need to be filled and create position descriptions. Written policies and procedures are being developed to cover all of our functions. Moreover, last year, the PV Board committed itself to a comprehensive strategic planning process, in order to ensure that we evaluated and took appropriate action with respect to all 3 legs of our stool: mission and programs, capital, and capacity.
I could devote another whole blog to our strategic planning process so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. But we are very pleased that among the 15 Board and staff members who participated in our goal setting retreat on April 17th, we had broad consensus around goals and, not surprisingly, several addressed organizational capacity. We are working now on the strategic plan itself and an actionable implementation plan. But it all began with a frank assessment of where PV was in its lifecycle.
Maleyne Syracuse is the President of the Board of Directors of Peters Valley Craft Center. She is also is President of Board of Directors of the Pike County (PA) Public Library and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of two NYSE traded closed ends funds. Ms. Syracuse retired in 2007, after over 25 years as an investment banker, most recently as a Managing Director with JP Morgan. She enjoys gardening and fiber arts—a passion she developed after taking weaving courses at Peters Valley. Ms. Syracuse lives with her husband and their two cats in New York, NY and Milford, PA.
The Dodge Foundation thanks all of our guest bloggers in the Developing Your Board Leadership series for their time and thoughtful input. We hope that these blog posts have been informative to all of our readers. For further information about our Technical Assistance workshops, please visit the Dodge website.