Not all organizations can go-to-scale, but all organizations have inflection points when getting to the next level is appropriate—or even imperative. The term “next level” is generally associated with an organization’s lifecycles, moving from one stage to another like from a start-up to a growth period. We expand on that definition to include when an organization is ready to build on their strengths and assets to achieve greater impact, engage more constituents, and become more financially secure —thus becoming more successful and sustainable.
In our work with more than 700 nonprofits, public agencies, and foundations in the U.S. and beyond, we recognize five strategies that successful organizations use to get to the next level.
- Don’t be humble – tell your story
Your organization has built a solid foundation and demonstrated success. Now it’s time to take the next step—tell your story! Telling your story is about more than having the right message or a glossy new brochure. It’s your organization seeing itself as “grown up” and thus presenting itself that way. It’s about having confidence in your focus and impact and telling the world about the positive impact you have on people and communities. It’s not about being arrogant or humble. It’s about being confident and proud.
- Seek investment – not charity
In Beyond Fundraising, Kay Sprinkel Grace challenges the traditional way organizations view donors. She encourages organizations to shed their historic needy, never-have-enough charity approach to fundraising. Organizations that get to the next level put away their tin cup attitude towards fundraising and position themselves a vehicle for donors to invest in the social change they seek to create. Organizations communicate with their donors that an investment in them is really an investment in the community. Donors want to be part of something that is having an impact. They want to invest in successful organizations. So, don’t fall into the trap that being successful is a deterrent to raising money. It’s just the opposite. Just look at the organizations with the nation’s largest endowments.
- Learn from outside your (insular) subsector
Organizations that get to the next level look beyond their typical networks and industry subsector to see what works more broadly. They seek out and apply best practices from a variety of disciplines and subsectors. However, all too often organizations overlook this strategy. Just think, when was the last time you or your leadership team discussed a book that’s being read by the world’s top CEOs?
This recently became clear to me when working with a successful mid-sized organization. This organization had done all the “right things” as benchmarked to the standards and best practices of their subsector. They were looking to take the next step, but felt stuck. They had an extremely valuable resource right in front of them that they had completely overlooked and woefully underutilized—their board members! Many of their board members are retired CEOs of global corporations and had received the best training in the business world on leadership, management, team building, and marketing. This is not to say that the organization should or will begin operating like a global corporation. But their board members have expertise and expertise and the organization tapped into that. So, look beyond what’s common practice in your industry to see what brings success elsewhere and utilize all the resources available to you, including your board members.
- Do Less, Obsess More
In Great at Work, Morton Hansen argues that the secret to success is “do less and obsess more.” Quality beats quantity, but only if you are single-minded. You can’t get to the next level unless you are strategic and deliberate in all that you do. It’s the art of honing—focusing on and leveraging your organization’s distinctive competence and unique position or “street cred.” Get to the next level by critically analyzing your organization’s components, making deliberate decisions, and creating a more integrated, cohesive whole. Check out our Integrated Strategy for Nonprofit Success and Sustainability (all of our work is based on the Integrated Strategy). Our Integrated Strategy ensures an organization’s success and sustainability!
- Invest in staff
One of the most predominant themes in business literature today is the recruitment and retention of talented employees and how to get the best of them. Organizations that want to get to the next level must pay wages and benefits commensurate with talent and experience. Along with offering competitive salary and benefits, there must be an expectation of the highest quality of work from your employees – not just long hours and passion.
One of the most successful executive directors I know leads a thriving community-based human services organization. Fairly compensating her staff is a priority. She tells a story about a donor who would not make a sizable donation to any organization that paid a staff person more than $70,000 (and this organization is in a high priced urban market). The executive director turned down the gift with a reasonable explanation about the organization’s human resource policies and values.
Strong organizations also understand the value of investing in professional development. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, the number one factor for millennials when applying for a job was opportunities to learn and grow. Millennials want to work for a business that invests in their human capital. In addition, the Association of Talent Development found that companies that offer professional development and comprehensive training programs have 218% higher income per employee! Long story short, investing in professional development for your staff is good for your bottom line—now and for years to come.
So, what does the next level look like for your organization? Are you ready for the next level? As an executive or manager, do you want to learn how to implement these five strategies? If so, check out our High Impact Manager and Reshape the Future: Be a Nonprofit CEO training courses. Or, contact me to explore analysis and planning for your organization so that you can get to your next level.