Deepening, Expanding and Evolving: The Nonprofit Growth Mandate

by Josh Jacobson

On Tuesday, February 19, I had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop for the Arts & Science Council on a provocative topic – “Deepening, Expanding and Evolving: The Nonprofit Growth Mandate.” So what was it about?

Organizations are apt to find themselves in a conundrum. Grantmakers tell them they want to primarily fund new initiatives and programming, with the goal of increasing mission impact. But they are unwilling to fund that growth entirely themselves, or else want to realign their giving to focus on growth instead of core operations and programming. We call the expectation of area funders “the nonprofit growth mandate,” with the idea that nonprofits are not able to stay in place for too long before they are encouraged to grow impact.

While this is typically a complaint directed at funders, it is also an expectation of plenty of boards, volunteers and other types of donors that “need drives response,” and with increased need comes the expectation of increasing programming to meet that need. In effect, nonprofits are meant to grow. As one participant said the other night, “if you aren’t growing, you’re dying.”

But what does that look like for different types of organizations? Not every organization is going to have a linear growth strategy that suggests increasingly higher budgets, larger staffs and increased impact through more programming. That may be appropriate for some, but for others, growth may look somewhat different.

This was the goal of the workshop – to explore growth through three lenses:

  • Deepening – Programmatic growth for an organization may not mean serving more people, but rather increasing impact for individuals already being served. The workshop explored methods of increasing impact by augmenting or extending the experience of engagement, elevating the understanding of program participants, challenging thought and action, and encouraging response. This is an ideal growth strategy for organizations that may be limited by space or human resources to continually increase the number of people served, and can be a cost-effective way to demonstrate increased impact through growth.
  • Expanding – We also covered the classic definition of growth, with an increased number of participants in programming as a goal. Methods we explored included increasing capacity to grow participants, planting a seed of engagement, aligning offerings to target audiences, and marketing to activate growth. For many workshop participants, it was clear barriers to expansion centered on facility, human resources and financial resources, which can be challenging issues to work through.
  • Evolving – This workshop also looked at a number of trends impacting nonprofits in the Charlotte area, with factors such as the overall growth of the nonprofit sector, the mix of how revenue is allocated and the impacts of generational change suggesting that current business models may not be sufficient in the future. The final topic of the workshop focused on evolving to shift delivery of mission and how evolution may be a different form of growth. We discussed redefining what success looks like, how new tools may be needed, and the importance of collaboration and sustainability.

In the end, workshop participants left feeling (I hope) Inspired by the possibilities but also grounded with tools and how-to supports to aid them as they engaged their boards and other key stakeholders in the topic of growth.

As a new topic for us, the “Nonprofit Growth Mandate” is a compelling frame for discussing the best practices all organizations should be engaged in – regular needs assessments and asset inventories to explore opportunities to deepen, expand and evolve mission delivery.

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