As the executive director and 1 of 3 staff members at small organization, I can honestly say I have a lot on my plate. I admit, I woke up at 3:00 am this morning with some anxiety about all the tasks I need to complete before year end.
I awoke thinking about the insurance committee phone call in the morning, processing gifts and thank you letters, working with volunteers to utilize Google Analytics, following up with prospects from a recent event, finalizing an off-site employment agreement with a University for a work study student, meeting with one of our partners regarding programming, signing checks, interviewing a co-op student, and many other tasks. After taking several deep breaths… and snuggling with my dogs…I was able to go back to sleep with a clear mind.
Being able to relax and go back to sleep hasn’t always been easy for me. First, let me explain. For a variety of reasons, I absolutely love working with small and/or start-up nonprofits and helping them grow into sustainable, viable organizations. I’ve been doing this for more than a decade and less than two. Through a lot of hard knocks & sleepless nights, I learned three important lessons that help me maximize my time and resources in a small shop that has big aspirations.
My first lesson was the need to establish strategic goals. To grow, small nonprofits need to take advantage of unplanned opportunities. The staff – and the board – can run circles chasing all the opportunities and ideas available to an organization. By establishing strategic goals, the staff and the Board can prioritize whether or not the opportunity or idea is worth pursuing. I learned this lesson by experiencing the challenges small and/or start up shops have in either a) chasing everything possible until everyone is exhausted or b) over planning and missing some make it or break it opportunity. Defining strategic goals is a happy medium between these two scenarios.
The next lesson I learned was regarding the importance of developing systems and processes for a variety of job functions so you can assign these jobs to volunteers, interns, or co-ops. I’m sure a lot of you are saying, this sounds great but who has the time! I used to think the same thing. Now I ask, who doesn’t have the time? If you are skeptical, start off small and see what happens.
I gave a hint earlier about the last lesson, which is to utilize volunteers, interns, co-ops, etc.! Believe me, I understand this adds work to your day. At the same time, it can take a lot of work off of your plate. The key, as outlined in lesson two, is to systematize job functions for volunteers, interns, or co-ops. This allows the person to work with minimal oversight and provides a mechanism to evaluate the quality of work. And, hopefully, a few of your volunteers, interns, co-ops will be natural leaders who quickly stand out. When this happens, utilize them as project leaders.
I admit all the lessons I’ve outlined above require an investment of time. The payoff comes when you’re out of the development stage and into the implementation and maintenance phases. This is when you’ll be able to sleep at night knowing you’re maximizing all your resources to help move the organization forward!