Sunday, April 26, 2009

Too Small to Succeed?


Today's post title is a riff on that oft-heard recession phrase, "too big to fail". A recent meeting about saving an historic property, followed closely by a visit with a very small cultural organization, got me to thinking about the basic benchmarks for organizational success. We're learning more all the time about what it takes to create and grow a successful nonprofit. High on my list are:
  • meeting a real (not perceived) need -- this isn't an ego or power trip
  • having a plan to realize it right from the get-go -- many cultural nonprofits get too much of a free pass on this one from incorporating agencies
  • visionary and unflagging leadership -- preferably from more than one person
  • attracting people to the organization who have access to substantial resources, be it time, money, or people with time and money
  • building a critical mass of supporters (a good, growable base right from the start) -- there are some umbrella organizations that require just that of satellites before the shovel hits the ground
  • a quality "product", worthy of support
Certainly, if these basic ingredients are lacking, an organization surely will fail. Now that I see this list in print, I think the first and last items might be the most important. Big or small, rural or urban, if the organization isn't meeting a real community need with the best possible program (or the best possible raw material to make into a really terrific program), who will care enough to provide the juice to keep it going?

My historic property example has intense community interest, but little financial wherewithal to restore and operate it (actual available cash - $0, but some in-kind). And the raw material for the product is more a local story than the national one supporters think it is. On the other hand, the cultural organization I met is very local, but in the eight years it has been active, it has managed to attract only 20 dues-paying members, and nearly half of them are on the board (annual operating budget - $720). Both my examples are fueled by some big dreams, but both are hampered, in my estimation, by an their inability to articulate the
real need they fill.

Are there some nonprofits that are just too small to succeed? Definitely. As for my examples,
time will tell the tale, I think.

Image: Hue Gradation by krisheding

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