Best Practices for Nonprofit Sustainability – Part 1

Laura Otten’s Favorite Best Practices for Sustainable Nonprofits
Laura Otten

For Boards:

  • The more you design your on-boarding process to reflect what you do in your staff hiring process, the more successful you will be in bringing on the “right” board members.
  • Use your committee structure as your farm system: require that anyone interested in being considered for a position on the board must serve a year on a committee.  It is like putting the probation before the hire.
  • Before electing the board president/chair, determine what is needed in that position at this time in your organization’s life cycle and work, and who you want in that position. The position requires very specific skills, some of which are stable over time, and some of which vary with strategic priorities, lifecycle, etc.  Focus on the what, not the who, in filling this all important position.
  • Don’t be afraid to regularly ask the question: Is our mission still needed?

For Executive Directors:

  • You have as many bosses as you have board members. Carve out time to meet at least twice a year, one-on-one with each, with the goal of gaining an understanding of each one’s strengths, how best to work with that person, engage them with the organization, etc.
  • In order to best understand how the dynamic of the board-ED relationship works, serve on another organization’s board. See the relationship from the other side of the view you get on a daily basis.
  • Model the behavior you want to see in staff. You want to be a learning organization?  Read, engage in professional development opportunities and don’t be stingy—share what you learn with the rest of staff.
  • Do not settle for “good enough;” make sure the organization is always operating at the level of excellence.

For Staff:

  • Before you find yourself getting burned out, reach out and ask for help. Ask a colleague, your supervisor, the executive director for suggestions on how to decompress.
  1. Don’t wait to be offered opportunities for professional growth and development; if you see an opportunity, ask if you may seize it.
  2. Learn early in your career as much as you can about how nonprofits are supposed to operate and do not assume that what you see around you is how it is supposed to be; learn best practices and work to bring them into your organization.

 For All:

  • Keep the mission statement alive and present in all that you do, as opposed to it being a distant memory. Without that constant reminder, the day-to-day interpretation can meander away from the public and promised goal.  Just because we do our jobs—as staff or board members—doesn’t mean we are living the mission as we promised it.  Talk about it, consider it when decisions are being made, make sure that all—staff and board members—hold a shared understanding of that mission and serve it with a passion.
  • Don’t ever denigrate your organization and the sector by saying, “We are just a nonprofit.”

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