It’s easy to believe that growing is always the right thing to do, especially when an opportunity to accelerate growth appears. However, sometimes organizations become so enamored of the growth mechanism that they lose sight of the social impact they are trying to achieve.
In difficult economic times, organizations feel intense pressure to show measurable results: more customers served, more students tutored, fewer homeless families. Yet nonprofits cannot always measure their success in quantifiable units. Instead, they must focus on fulfilling their mission: Are they serving their original purpose? Are they making a difference in the communities they serve? Measuring qualitative impact can be a far more slippery task than measuring quantitative results.
Add to this challenge the tendency for growth to always be seen as both necessary and good. If your organization is successful, of course it’s going to grow. More is better, right? Except when more means that your mission and impact become increasingly diffuse. Except when growth means that you aren’t serving all your constituents in the same way because it occurred too rapidly for your program to be codified. How can organizations avoid these pitfalls and instead choose intentional, strategic, and sustainable growth?
A Successful Vision
For an organization to grow successfully, it must develop a vision for growth that is tied to a collective understanding across the organization of what it wants to achieve through growth. Staff at all organizational levels should help create the vision for growth and contribute their ideas during the process. Ideally, that vision must focus on social impact. How can an organization go deeper in pursuing its mission, rather than necessarily reach a greater number of people through additional chapters or other growth mechanisms? What organizations should measure is the real outcome of growth—in terms of social impact, rather than sheer output numbers. This approach sounds wonderful in theory, but how do leaders put it into practice?
Growth Assessment Tool
When organizations contemplate growth, they must be sure that their plan aligns around vision, mission, and impact. Community Wealth Partners has developed a Growth Assessment Tool in consultation with Paul Bloom, Professor of Social Entrepreneurship and Marketing at Duke University, that can help an organization clarify its mission. It can be done as a self-assessment or with assistance from Community Wealth Partners. Key questions that will enable thoughtful, strategic growth are:
- Why is the organization growing?
- If we are successful, what will we achieve as a result of our growth?
- Do we have a proven theory of change?
- Do we have processes and systems to measure impact and then use that data and information to guide decision-making?
- Can everybody across the organization state what its vision is and what its mission statement is?
The Growth Assessment Tool includes the following organizational considerations to assess readiness for growth: program, financial, operations, data, information technology, staffing, culture, governmental affairs, and leadership and governance. Organizations can grow under any circumstances, but growth with a clear, articulated vision will minimize the challenges of changing and offer the most mission-focused results.
Green = Go, Yellow = Slow
How does an organization know if it’s ready to grow? In Community Wealth Partners’ model, an organization that is considered green in most areas of assessment is well positioned for growth. An organization that may be yellow on some issues should proceed with caution. Growth is certainly possible if an organization is yellow in most areas, but it may be more difficult for it to achieve strong results.
An organization that is red in multiple areas of assessment is not ready for growth. In this case, the organization can grow, but it will be painful growth. If an organization finds that it is red in most areas, however, the best choice may be to address major issues before proceeding with growth to increase the chances of success.
Of course, most organizations will not be equally strong across their operations—they may find they are red in some areas, yellow in others, and green in still others. Mixed results offer an opportunity for organizations to invest in some adjustments before starting to grow, or to choose to grow while those changes are under way.
Although intensive planning for intentional growth may take longer than less thorough approaches, it will also yield superior results and help keep the organization on mission.
While it may seem contradictory in our 24/7 world, where people are striving to adapt quickly, taking the time to assess readiness for growth—and address any impediments to growth that emerge—ultimately yields better results. Therefore, slowing down before changing course or expanding allows intentional, strategic growth that strengthens the organization and increases its impact.
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Paula J. Kelly is a freelance writer and editor based in Reston, Virginia. You can reach her at email@example.com.