Tag Archive: Ann Arbor

What is a blog? Why blog?

Written by Alysha Schlundt-Bodien, Training and Facility Coordinator at Community Television Network of Ann Arbor

We live in an age where apps, tablets and smart phones are at our finger tips.  It’s hard not to feel sensory overload when looking for ways to grow your nonprofit.  But, one of the best ways to give back to your supporters and the organization is to start a blog.

A blog offers an inside look into a nonprofit organization or business and what it does in the community. For example, the Ann Arbor Farmers Market’s blog highlights weekly goods and healthy recipes in an eye appealing way. And the coolest thing about blogs is that they allow your organization to gain local, regional, national and even global outreach for free! There may be some start up fees like purchasing URL domains.  We’ll talk more about those fees in our upcoming blogs.

A blog is different from a website. Websites offer one way communication to your audience, but many websites host blogs. An example of this is the Ann Arbor District Library’s (AADL) site where the main page is their calendar of events, which allows users to login and post feedback. This makes the AADL site an open two-way communication resource, and a great way for AADL to discover  what their audience is interested in.

Blogs are not newsletters. Unlike newsletters, blogs are fast paced, up-to-date databases that contain full on multimedia content as well as an RSS feed, or  Real Simple Syndication.  RSS feeds allow followers to subscribe to your blog through an RSS reader or aggregate. Each time you post new content, the post is sent right to a follower’s web or desktop reader.  Think of it as an instant email without you ever having to send anything or building a database.  All you have to do, is publish a post!

RSS Icon

The RSS feed icon is orange and has white waves coming out of it.  An example of this is the Michigan Municipal League Place Making blog where they highlight statewide events and stories. When visiting their site, you immediately notice the RSS feed icon,  as well as other social media links, in the upper right hand corner of the site.  This feed allows you to stay connected.

A blog can be as simple as photos or as technical as an article with videos.  It all depends on your audience and the blog’s objective.

I’ve read that 2014 is the year of the blog, especially for nonprofits. Would you agree? Feel free to leave me questions and comments, so I know what you’re interested in and what you would like to learn more about. In the next blog, we’ll look at the different types of blogs. See you then. =)

Alysha has been an advocate for PEG Access and free speech since high school, where she got her start at Rougeview Community Television in Rockford, Michigan. She graduated from Central Michigan University (CMU) with a Bachelors of Arts in Integrative Public Relations studying communication, journalism, broadcasting and multimedia. During college, she was a Promotions Coordinator at Mid Michigan Area Cable Consortium (MACTV Network) and a freelance videographer for the Office of Student Life at CMU. She is currently a Training and Facility Coordinator for Community Television Network of Ann Arbor, President of the Michigan Chapter Alliance for Community Media (ACM) and Communications Chair for the Central States Region ACM. She’s also a Raptor Volunteer at Leslie Science & Nature Center, a nonprofit in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she feeds 19 non-releasable birds of prey weekly. In her free time, she enjoys spending time outdoors with friends and family.

Starting a Nonprofit Is Like Choosing a Halloween Costume

One of the awesome pumpkins carved during NEW's 5th Annual Family Pumpkin Carving night at the NEW Center


Every year, in late October, I torment myself. It’s two days before the big Halloween party and I’ve put off my costume until now. Sure, my wife and I talked about it. We even came up with a few ideas. We had plans as far back as September.  We just didn’t do anything about them. Over the last eight years, I think my wife and I were happy with one or two of our costumes. I’m guessing this is pretty universal. People love ideas, but don’t always take action on them.

The same can easily be said about starting a nonprofit. I’d be willing to bet that almost everyone has a great idea to make the world a better place.  We’ve each got a thought in our head that could help to inspire, educate or benefit humanity. We simply don’t all take action on them. In the spirit of the season, I’ve put together a few helpful ideas for both of these conundrums: “What should I be for Halloween?” And, “How can I change the world?”

1. Make Sure You’re Comfortable – First of all, no one wants to be dressed as a “sexy watermelon” when it’s 30 degrees and raining. Choose layers that allow you to go from the cold outdoors of trick or treating to the warm inside of a party. Plus, most adults now understand that putting “sexy” in front of something doesn’t automatically qualify it as a costume.
The same should be said about starting a nonprofit. Be comfortable in your mission. Make sure it’s something you’re really passionate about and be comfortable with the idea of success. Also, make sure to “layer” the ideas you have to raise funds and take action on your mission. Having a few different ways of completing your mission allows you to keep moving forward whether the economy is hot or cold.

2. Don’t Force Yourself to Explain It Constantly – My cousin showed up to this year’s party dressed as Frieda Kahlo. I’m a fan of Latin American feminist heroes and that unibrow certainly gives a big clue as to who it is. But, my cousin spent most of the party explaining that she wasn’t dressed as a Ukrainian hipster.
When a nonprofit calls itself a food bank or a cancer research foundation, you know exactly what you’re dealing with. Wear your mission on your sleeve and make sure it’s easy to explain to everyone you meet. In other words, keep it simple. People will respond better to a group they understand.

3. Don’t Get in Over Your Head – Someday soon, my son will want me to make him a fully functional Transformer costume. I’m crafty, but I’m not a special effects artist. I’ll do my best to put something together that he thinks is still “cool” but doesn’t cost me a quarter of a million dollars in CGI graphics. The trick is to ask what part of the costume he thinks is the best and work from there.
In the same way, we don’t necessarily want to claim our nonprofit mission to be “End World Hunger” or “World Peace”. While these can be part of the greater goal (like a Transformer), there is probably one aspect of the ultimate goal that you could focus on most effectively. Let’s try to facilitate world peace by educating on the topic of tolerance locally, hopefully expanding over time.

4. If You’re Going to Do Something Popular, Be Creative – Every Halloween party is likely to have a handful of mafia gangsters, pirates, and superheroes. The least you can do is modify your popular costume to make it a bit more unique. Are you a policeman or a 1970s TV detective? Are you a ghost or the ghost of Albert Einstein?
There are many nonprofits that try to help the poor and cure diseases. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for a few more. Just understand that if you’re going to do something similar to what another group already does, you need to set your creative bar higher. How do you help people or raise money that is markedly different from the rest of the pack? Do you ask for money to keep the homeless warm or do you have an army of expert quilters that repurpose old clothing into warm blankets?

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask the Experts – If you don’t know how to sew, ask a friend who does. No one will think less of you or your Marie Antoinette costume just because had help making it.
Groups like NEW (shameless plug) are a great source for information on how to start your own nonprofit. They’ve got access to all the information you’ll need and the experience necessary to make sure you’re set up for success. With an expert craftsperson by your side, no costume or mission statement is impossible.

6. You Can’t Always Do it on Your Own – Face it, you’re going to look pretty silly showing up to a party alone dressed as Colonel Mustard. Why not make a few calls and show up with Ms. Peacock and Professor Plum as well? You’ll see that your costume is better explained and multidimensional.

If you’re going to start a nonprofit, it would serve you well to have a coalition before you start filling out paperwork and hosting spaghetti dinners. Having an initial board of directors in place before incorporating will ensure a focused and properly thought out mission. It’s always a good idea to get a second or third set of eyes before finally getting down to business.
Most importantly, make sure not to keep putting it off. You’ll end up with a head full of ideas covered by a sheet. Good luck and have a Happy Halloween!

Written by  Robb Drzewicki


Welcome to the Hub

Kevin Sample - npServ Administrator

Walking into NEW’s npServ office, you’re met with the vision you’d expect to see in any IT department, an assortment of tools, computer parts and stacks of keyboards lining the shelves. What you may not realize is that this tiny office and the 4 incredible teammates within are not just the technological hub of NEW and the NEW Center, but of over 50 non-profit organizations. The difference between npServ and another outsourced IT service is simple. They’re a nonprofit too. They understand working on a shoestring budget while focusing on a mission rather than a profit goal. It shows in everything they do.
I was lucky enough to spend a morning with Justin Lunning (npServ’s director) and his team. I noticed a few things that were a bit different than your average IT company.


1. No Scripts – Admit it. You’ve called a help desk before. Your computer was on the fritz or your smartphone wasn’t working and you called an 800 number. You were met on the other end of the phone by a technician working off of a script. He or she was trained to use and run a pre-written list of diagnostic tests that led him or her (like a Choose Your Own Adventure book) to some semblance of an answer to your question. It took an hour to get your printer back online and print a report you needed for a meeting 45 minutes ago.

The npServ team doesn’t have a script. They have talented IT professionals that take a holistic approach to IT. “Your printer isn’t working? You need that report for a presentation in 15 minutes? Let’s reroute that document to another printer nearby. Grab it and get into your meeting. I should have your printer fixed by the time you’re done. Good luck and let me know how everything turns out.”
2. No Limits – Yes, there’s a specific set of things that NEW does. Sure, they focus on the basic day-to-day needs of clients, set up servers, and occasionally hold training sessions for non-profit staffers. With most organizations, that’s where the job would end. At npServ, that’s being a “C” student.

Justin and his team realize that they’re the technological life preserver for most of their clients. Most small non-profits can’t afford to pay a full-time IT professional. They may have volunteers and staff who are incredibly dedicated to this task and their mission, but lack the skills necessary to build a technology infrastructure or make important decisions on hardware and software purchases. npServ is always looking to expand their offerings/services with pilot programs ranging from web design to software development. In other words, the npServ team is the team you call when you realize that you have no idea what fundraising software you need and Consumer Reports doesn’t have a listing for Raisers Edge.

3. No Laziness – If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the phrase “that’s not my job”. While I was working with the team, I heard a great story about a non-profit moving from one office to another. The npServ team did something so outlandish that it requires repeating. They actually picked up things and moved them. Imagine that! In order to facilitate their job, the nonprofit’s mission, and the move itself, they physically moved objects from one place to another.

This may seem small and trivial, but it’s far from common. I’ve worked in a handful of corporate environments, and this is not the norm. It just shows the sort of care and personal touch that makes this team different from the others.

Written by Robb Drzewicki.

About Robb:  Robb is the most recent addition to the volunteer corps at NEW.  He’s a stay-at-home Dad with a degree in non-profit management who wants to spend what free time he has improving and expanding as many non-profits as possible.  Working with the team at NEW seemed like the best way to share his experience and enthusiasm with a wide range of non-profit missions.  His series of blogs will explore who NEW really is.  We hope a fresh set of eyes will help us explain the NEW mission to a new audience.

Selling and Marketing Your Mission 2.0

“Financial sustainability is, without a doubt, the most pivotal issue for nonprofit organizations for the next decade. We’re seeing many more organizations in financial distress.” — Kate Dewey

Yodit Mesfin Johnson

Headlines and quotes like these are why last year, Rob Marshall, Founder of  R. Marshall Performance Company and I hosted a workshop for area nonprofits titled Selling and Marketing Your Mission.

In that first session, our goal was to take nonprofit leaders through a process that would help them:

  • Clearly define their current mission, so  they could be thoughtful about their “value proposition”
  • Define (for themselves) their potential or existing  products and services
  • Demonstrate how those products and services impact or benefit others
  • Determine how those products and services impact their  organizational mission

An example of the process comes from the Detroit Downtown Youth Boxing Program (DDYBP), a nonprofit (officially three years ago) now in its seventh year.  The program develops good citizenship in urban youth through a demanding boxing program while offering strong academic support and a connection to the community through voluntary service.

A  boxing  program in Detroit! Can you imagine the challenges they faced in trying to get donors to wrap their heads around a program that seemingly encourages an aggressive sport for kids– in one of the most violent communities in the nation? You guessed it!  They receive a lot of flack for this.

However perplexed donors may have been, there’s no doubt the gym is making a difference. The  facility is located in an area of Detroit formerly known as Black Bottom, a once thriving, now vastly vacant area on the city’s east side.  The neighborhood has a 30% graduation rate from high school. The kids enrolled in this program have a 100% graduation rate and have ALL gone on to college.

Because of these tremendous outcomes, new donors have stepped up in recent years to support the gym. This is good for the gym, but times are still tight. Like so many of us, the need for sustainability continues to loom in the background of the roller-coaster-like balance sheet.

Last year, along with a committed volunteer, DDYBP staffers started thinking about other sources of revenue. If their mission was to develop strong kids through civic, academic and wellness programs, who else might be interested in those activities? What “service” did they have that people other than the kids could use?

Well, it just so happens that there’s a bigger “wellness” movement happening in Detroit. People are biking together, working out on the Riverfront and doing Yoga and Pilates for the first time. In the wake of the national health crisis, coupled with a convergence of young people on Detroit’s Midtown and Downtown areas – citizens have been trying to get healthy. Making Detroit ripe for…. you guessed it – boxing lessons! Well, not really boxing lessons more like personal training and exercise with Coach Khalil, who runs the gym.

When we asked gym’s leaders “how their product could benefit others,” they quickly realized that there might be an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that the gym was empty most mornings (so they didn’t have to infringe on existing programming).  There is a demand in the City for non-traditional workouts (something they were already doing with the kids), and a potential fee-structure that incentivized return business or subscription-like classes which would help address cash-flow challenges that many nonprofits face.

All sounds good huh?  There are still challenges. The gym isn’t in the best neighborhood. They’re moving soon. The organization is still relatively young. All things we can relate to. We’re continuing to track this organization, and hold their hands as they build this enterprise into their organization. You can keep up to date with them here.

Later this month, Rob and I are reconvening with last year’s participants. We’re hosting a 2.0 version of our session. We want to lift the hood up on some of their early efforts towards sustainability and see how we can help with the business model, sales strategies, customer acquisition strategies and general operational strategies. If you’d like to join us, register here.

Finally, here’s what a recent customer said after participating in one of the gym’s adult training sessions:

“A friend of mine was throwing a “Friday Night Fights” event that got some women together to learn boxing skills at a gym. I knew the proceeds would go to a youth program the gym has, but honestly I kind of just went to support my friend. I expected to hit the punching bag a few times and drink some wine lol. I did NOT expect to bust my a$%  working out for over an hour, do crazy intense drills and get in the ring (exhausted) for about 3 rounds. What the kids do on their normal days in the gym was 5 x longer than what we did. They run 3 miles every day, jump rope, do jumping jacks, tire drills to test their balance and stamina, squat drills to test their stance and coordination…the list goes on. Then they spar with each other for five 3-minute rounds, on top of doing their homework, getting tutored, eating dinner, and doing volunteer work. Every…single…day. Two girls in the program and one little boy were there. They were super excited to show us what they do and took so much pride in having this place to workout. Learning about them and the other kids that use the facility really touched my heart and that’s what I wanted to share…

In their computer room, the walls were lined with pictures of some of the kids. When I asked one of the girls why some of the boys got their pictures there, she proudly pointed out each one, knew their name and told me the boxing level they all made it to. Almost all of them were ranked in the WORLD. One particular kid almost made the Olympic team and apparently decided that instead of boxing professionally he now wants to be a doctor. The stories for all of the boys were equally impressive. We all know the issues rampant in our community, particularly with boys, and to know the impact this one gym is having not just on things like their esteem, but also their ability to go to college and see a future beyond whatever boundaries they have- real or imagined- was nothing short of incredible. Not to mention the gym, in existence for 7 years, was founded by one guy and now is run by him and one other person. I’m going back – hope you’ll join me.” — J. Brooks

Written by Yodit Mesfin Johnson, NEW’s Director of Business Development.  Don’t miss “Selling and Marketing Your Mission 2.0″ on Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at the NEW Center.  Register here


Establishing Productive and Effective Advisory Councils for Nonprofits

Diana Kern, Vice President of Programs

Why establish an advisory council/group, board emeritus council, or other such non-governing body?  First, let’s talk about what these bodies are, or can do, for nonprofits.

What is an Advisory Council?  
An advisory council/group is usually a collection of individuals who bring unique knowledge and skills which complement the knowledge and skills of the formal board members in order to more effectively govern the organization. Advisory groups are sometimes formed to provide status to people, for example, retiring CEOs of the nonprofit, exiting board chairs, term-limited board members, or major contributors that have no desire to attend board meetings. Some people form Advisory Groups because they want “recognized names” in the community that they can add to their letterhead with hopes this will draw funds, but they put no formal requests of these people and do not really communicate well with them. Other Advisory Councils are formed to provide subject matter guidance to a nonprofit that might have a scientific or medical mission.  These Advisory Councils are just that, experts that help provide data, thoughts and support to the Executive Director and Board on a specific disease, medical condition or technology.

An advisory group does not have formal authority to govern the organization. Unless otherwise provided for in the bylaws it cannot issue directives which must be followed. Rather, the advisory group serves some purpose (or should), that is missing in any other governance structure.  The advisory group can be standing (or ongoing) or ad hoc (one-time) in nature.

Most governance experts will recommend that you avoid calling this non-governing body a “board.” There is only one fiduciary board and reserving that word for the governing body is best. Some advisory groups feel if they are bringing in the majority of the donations they should be able to make the decisions.  Your bylaws shouldclearly define what body governs the nonprofit.  Just because someone is the largest donor for a charity should not give them ultimate decision making over the mission.

Clarify What You Want From This Group
For Executive Directors/CEO’s and the Board of Directors you must first ask yourself what you desire from an advisory group.  What is your reason for wanting such a group?  You must have a clear objective for establishing this group and then its purpose must be clearly defined and communicated.   Too often the group ends up becoming a long list of names on the nonprofit’s letterhead of old board members, or “name recognition” people that do not even contribute to the organization financially or otherwise and the fiduciary board has little to no contact with these individuals. Is this really effective?  How will the nonprofit benefit from this type of structure?  How can advisory groups be ambassadors for the mission if they are never informed about outcomes and metrics?

Things Your Advisory Group Could Do
Good advisory groups are ones that:
• Have a passion for the mission of the nonprofit
• Are willing to be called upon for assistance with resource allocation, introductions to key people or will be advisors to the board or CEO
• Are willing to make a financial contribution to the nonprofit annually
• Will be ambassadors for the nonprofit in their circles of influence
• Are kept informed about key milestones, metrics or accomplishments so they can spread the word about the work of the nonprofit
• Don’t want to attend monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly board meetings, but are willing to attend one annual meeting a year…a State-of-the-State meeting where they can be educated, inspired and engage in discussion about vision and mission
• Serve a key “advisory” voice for medical conditions or diseases to help the nonprofit ensure their services and programs are helpful and effective and that the mission is the primary focus of the nonprofit.

Good boards will draft a charter for their Advisory Group and then ensure all trustees agree with the focus and function of the group.  Questions that are clarified in the charter are:
1. What will the size of the group be?
2. Will we have term-limits for this group?
3. Will the group have a chair person?
4. Will the group meet?
5. Who will be the staff liaison to this group?
6. What are the types of things they will be called upon to do?

Communication with Advisory Groups
Good boards and CEOs will make sure to support a communication plan with their advisory groups. Good boards know that they must keep their advisory members engaged and passionate about the mission while NOT burdening them with meetings or too many requests. You must be strategic about how you use them and how you honor them.  Ways to communicate with advisory members include:
• Including advisory group members on electronic communication lists for newsletters and event information
• A quarterly letter from the Board Chair and CEO about key activities or metrics meant to inform the member so they are educated and continue to feel inspired
• An annual meeting with the Advisory Group to thank them and educate them on the “state-of-the-state” of the nonprofit and to get their opinion on a key strategy or question facing the nonprofit
• Invitations, with personal notes from the Board Chair or CEO for key events

Before launching an advisory group or continuing with the one you have, be sure you have a clear objective in mind for the use of this group and how they will be engaged and communicated with.   Quality advisory groups can add a significant level of leadership and support for nonprofits.

Written by Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs for the May edition of  NEWs Notes.  Join Diana for the final session of our three-part Webinar series – “Making The Ask: Individuals & Corporations.”  Register here.

Terry Axelrod

This could be the year to get your organization on the path to financial sustainability, if you are willing to do the work to attain it. Here’s what it would look like:

1. Your organization has a self-generating group of enthusiastic individual donors who know your work and mission and who consider it consistent with their own values and mission in life. They regard their contributions to your organization as a bold step toward the fulfillment of their own purpose.

2. These loyal donors understand your work and freely choose to pledge their ongoing financial support by making unrestricted gifts for your operational needs. A subset of these donors also gives for capital projects and endowment. Rather than developing separate categories of donors to give to operations, capital, and endowment, this ever-increasing, single pool of loyal donors support all of these needs. These individual donors and supporters also advocate on your behalf at the legislature, invest in the continuing education of your staff, or offer summer jobs for your students. They are there to help fund a one-time special need for a family or community. They care that much!

3. Your donors engage others naturally by consistently talking about their favorite nonprofit organization with their friends and colleagues. They do this not because they have to sell tickets or raise dollars before the end of the year, but because they are genuinely excited about the organization’s work, and they want to tell others about it.

4. As time goes on, a ripple effect takes hold. Instead of board members needing to ask their friends for money, people who have gotten to know your organization over time begin to come to you and ask how they can join your board or help you in other ways. What began as a mere fundraising program has become an ongoing operating system for engaging and developing relationships with individuals who will sustain your work and, in turn, engage others to do the same.

5. Far beyond being your bread and butter, these loyal and passionate supporters are your oxygen, breathing life and vitality into your nonprofit organization, regularly refreshing your board, your volunteers, your staff, and keeping your organization connected to the current needs of the community. No longer the “best-kept secret in town,” your organization is well on the way to fulfilling its mission with a strong cadre of supporters who are delighted to be involved. For them, your work is their work.

*Terry Axelrod is the founder and CEO of Benevon, a Seattle-based organization that has trained and coached more than 4,000 nonprofit teams to build sustainable funding from individual donors. Learn from Terry in person at NEW’s Get Connected session “Sustainable Funding is Within Your Reach,” Wednesday, April 24, 10am-noon in Detroit.  Learn more.

NEW Unveils Workshop on Building and Sustaining Diverse Boards

NEW (Nonprofit Enterprise at Work) is excited to announce a new BoardConnect workshop – “Towards a Culture of Inclusion: Building and Sustaining a Diverse Board.”  The workshop, the first in a series of three offered through our new “Catalysts for Change” program, will take place Tuesday, January 22 from 8am– 11am at the Hannan House in Detroit.  Additional offerings will include a two-part workshop titled “Cultural Fluency in the Boardroom.”

Nonprofit organizations are recognizing that to better serve their communities, they must include the representation and engagement of individuals with diverse identities across all lines of difference.  This workshop, developed and facilitated by Rosemary Linares, NEW’s Program Associate and Training Specialist, is designed to help nonprofit organizations meet these needs, recruit diverse Board members, create an environment that is inclusive and establish a diverse leadership pipeline.

Rosemary Linares, NEW's Program Associate and Training Specialist

“For many years the for-profit sector has embraced the values of diversity and inclusion as a way to strengthen the bottom line, particularly as the demographics of our country are rapidly changing,” says Linares.  “It’s time for nonprofit leaders to intentionally expand and deepen the impact of these values across our sector, in order to foster innovation and sustainability, as well as effectively advance our charitable missions. We designed this workshop to share our tools and resources with nonprofit board members throughout Southeast Michigan.”

In preparation for this workshop, Linares incorporated data from national reports on nonprofit board diversity, as well as findings from the statewide Transforming Michigan Philanthropy through Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, spearheaded by the Council of Michigan Foundations.

Attendees will review nonprofit board diversity trends, learn how to examine barriers of diversity, inclusion and equity within their organizations, as well as learn how to develop a diversity and inclusion action plan.

“NEW is excited to add another component to its governance training.  We have found that most charity boards want to embrace a diversity of volunteer talent, but they don’t always know how to approach the conversation or put a meaningful plan into action,” says Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs.  “As with all our consulting and training offerings, we are taking a hands-on, realistic approach, and see this diversity and inclusion training as one more tool in our toolkit in helping nonprofit boards be the best they can be.”

Before joining NEW, Linares launched Cross Movement Social Justice Consulting, L3C, to advance social justice by increasing the capacity of nonprofit organizations and building alliances across movements.  She currently serves on the board of Detroit Latin@z, the Washtenaw County Pride Picnic Planning Committee and is a Community Engagement Co-Planner with the Understanding Race Project in Washtenaw County, in conjunction with the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.

The cost of the workshop is $75 per person and includes breakfast. Register here!

See additional program information in the January edition of NewsNotes.


What is Founder’s Syndrome and How Should Boards and the Founders Handle It?

A founder is a single individual or a small group of individuals, who bring an organization through tough times (e.g., a start-up, a growth spurt, a financial collapse). Often these sorts of situations require a strong passionate personality—someone who can make fast decisions and motivate people to action. Founders often invest significant time and money into the nonprofit. They are used to being very hands-on and drivers of programming and service delivery. But the question is how to move successfully past the founder stage? How can the stakeholders of an organization ensure sustainability of the nonprofit and the mission when the founder continues to play a role while the organization grows and changes?

Just like start-up for-profit businesses, nonprofits require flexibility as the needs for making decisions in the organization change. They need to implement mechanisms for shared responsibility and authority. It is when those decision-making mechanisms do not change while the organization grows that “Founder’s Syndrome” becomes an issue. We see this most frequently with organizations that have grown from a mom-and-pop operation to a $2-10 million community powerhouse, and decisions are still made as if the founders were gathered around someone’s living room. Founder’s Syndrome isn’t necessarily about the actual founder of an organization. The central figure could be the person who took over from the founder. It could be someone who took over in a time of crisis, and led the organization to clear waters. It could be a demonstrative board member there from the beginning who does not recognize the need for changing roles. Or, it could just be someone who has been at the helm forever. It could the person that “birthed” the nonprofit and holds tremendous passion for the mission and possibly has significant personal and financial investment. In other words it could the person to whom everyone seems to defer to out of respect or because this person still holds the purse strings.

Regardless, it is very important for individuals in leadership roles to understand this place in the nonprofit’s lifecycle and lead it to sustainable governance.

What Founder’s Syndrome Could Look Like

Founder’s syndrome decisions often are not made strategically. Usually decisions are simply made by the “Founder.” All other parties merely rubber stamp what the founder suggests. There is generally strong resistance to any change in decision-making, where the Founder might lose his/her total control of the organization. Boards of these organizations usually do not govern, rather they “approve” what the founder suggests. Planning is not done collectively, but by the founder. And plans/ideas that do NOT come from the founder usually do not go very far. In other words, regardless of the size of the organization, everyone who is NOT the Founder is relegated to the role of support staff to the Founder. (If you ever hear a board say, “Our board’s role is just to support the CEO,” that is one of many classic signals that Founder’s Syndrome is likely at play.)

Some may ask, “So what’s wrong with that?” And the answer is simple: If the “Founder” is hit by a meteor tomorrow, the organization is not sustainable, and all the good work the organization has done over the years is in danger of screeching to a halt. This threat occurs because organizations facing Founder’s Syndrome usually have little infrastructure in place because it simply has not been needed. In these situations, the founder IS the infrastructure!

What Founders Need to Know

Once you have birthed it, it is no longer your baby. Just as it is with our own children, once they are born, they are their own people. We can guide our children, teach them, nurture them—but our son or daughter is a person in his/her own right. The same goes for “our” organization. It’s not ours. It is its own thing. We don’t own it. In fact, legally, a 501C3 is owned by the stakeholders.

Once you give a gift, it’s no longer yours. You have created this amazing gift for your community. Now that it is used and depended upon by others—now that you have given this gift to the community, it is no longer yours. It belongs to the community. That’s the definition of a gift.

From these two facts—that the organization is a being in its own right, and that that being belongs to the community, not the founding member—come a number of other facts many founders may hesitate to face.

    1. Along with the decision to bring a child into the world comes the responsibility to raise it to live independently. We all know the old adage “nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Well, the part we do not like to admit to ourselves is that there is another certainty associated with the “death” part—and that is that none of us knows exactly when our day will come. Because we know we are not going to live forever, and we cannot know if our last day will be tomorrow or 50 years from now, it is irresponsible to run our organizations as if we will, in fact, be around forever. It is simply not fair to the organization, or to those who benefit from the work we do. The only responsible approach, therefore, is to raise this child to NOT need us.


    1. The world doesn’t owe you anything for having founded your organization. We gave up our lives to create the organization we founded. We went without sleep, sweated, cried and bled for this organization, and in some cases, even went into debt. But the sad truth is that nobody owes us anything for doing that. We did it because we cared. Regardless of which metaphor you use—that of having a child, or that of giving a gift—neither of them provides for a payback. Our “payback” in having children is in seeing them grow and take on the world on their own. And our “payback” for giving a gift is in seeing how happy the recipient is to use that gift, hopefully for a long, long time.


    1. It’s not about you. Harsh, but true. It is hard sometimes to acknowledge that regardless of how much we put into nurturing the organization we founded, in the long run, none of that really matters. It is not about our emotional needs—regardless of what those are. It is not about what we have sacrificed to make it all work, or the recognition and gratitude we think we should get. It is about the community—which is why we created this gift in the first place. If we have not prepared the organization to survive (and dare I say thrive?) without our presence and we cannot even think of leaving, as the organization would crumble without us, then we have somehow made it about us, rather than about the community.


  1. Your vision isn’t nearly as important as the organization’s vision and the community’s vision. Yes, it was our vision that founded the organization in the first place. But as the organization grows and matures, that vision may not be all there is. The ability for the organization to dramatically affect the community may be far larger than the vision we had when we first opened the doors. Doing things the way they have always been done, and thinking the way things have always been thought is not necessarily the best thing for the organization, nor for the community it serves. It is simply what WE would do. So if we fear the vision would change if we weren’t there, perhaps it’s time to let it evolve while we are still present. In the first year after birth it is time to revisit the mission and the vision. What does the community want from us and what is missing in the community as it pertains to the importance of the work?

So What is a Founder To Do?

First, if you are the founder of a brand new organization and you are just starting out, build it right. Build it to be sustainable for the future. Build it as if you won’t be there to see it through its life. Think about the future while you are creating the organization’s present.

If, however, the organization is an older one, and it and you have become inextricably entwined, then there is work to be done. Some of that work is organizational. Some is personal.

Let’s start with the personal side:

    1. Acknowledge that some day, the split will happen. The only way to ensure that your legacy is an organization that serves the community long after you are gone is to acknowledge, right now, that you cannot be there forever—and that you never know when that “forever” will occur. Take that to heart and be conscious of it as you plan for your organization’s future, and you will likely put the needed tools in place to survive you. If however you keep a sense of entitlement or make others around you think you deserve entitlement as the founder, then you will have trust problems and you will risk the organizational health of the nonprofit. Do not surround yourself with “yes” people. You need workers and you need people who will debate openly with you for the good of the organization.


  1. Get help. Find a professional coach who can help you work out the personal aspects of your eventual separation from the organization, even if you are not going anywhere but are just thinking about ensuring the organization is ready in the event you do. This is especially important for those of you who do not believe you have Founder’s Syndrome, but have heard it whispered.

On the organizational side:

    1. A healthy organization starts with a healthy board. Whether you are a board member or the CEO, if the board as a whole is depending on you for everything from the organization’s vision to the connection to the community, then it is time to begin developing, training and restructuring your board to lead the organization. This will likely take some very strategic recruiting efforts as well—because there is a good chance many of the existing board members were hand-picked by you! (That’s all part of the syndrome.) If the organization is to thrive into the next decade and further, the board will have to understand its role at the top of the organizational chart, and it will have to be populated by people who want to do that job. It is time to really look at governance structures that will allow for sustainability.


    1. Codify the vision and values that are at the heart of the organization. Create a working credo that will guide both the board’s future decisions and those made by the staff. There is nothing to say that the credo won’t evolve over time– it likely will. But the core of what is important will remain, and that will be another part of your legacy. Do not disregard the importance of organizational values.


    1. Create a succession plan that proactively deals with all the things you (or the board) fear might happen when you leave.
      • Are they afraid that you have been the link to the community, the public image of the organization? Then determine a way to proactively deal with that—perhaps creating a speakers bureau or PR committee.
      • Are they afraid that most of the institutional memory of the organization resides inside your head? Then find a way to proactively deal with that—perhaps by committing that knowledge to paper or video.
      • Are they afraid that you have been the best fundraiser they could dream of? Then find a proactive way to deal with that—perhaps by developing an army of development volunteers with a passion for the mission or a board that understands that 50% of their role will be ambassadorship and fundraising.

      Whatever the fear, make sure your succession plan deals with it proactively to ensure the viability of the organization for the long term. While the main focus of this plan will be succession, the ancillary benefit is that you will be building organizational infrastructure. And that will provide benefit immediately.


    1. As part of your succession plan, train someone now who could replace you, even temporarily, in the event something happens to you. This doesn’t mean you are going anywhere soon. You may not be leaving for another 10 years! But if the whole organization relies on you for its survival, and you really are hit by a meteor tomorrow, then what will happen? Find someone you can share your institutional knowledge with, and train them to share the load now, while you still can.


  1. When you leave, do not plan to stay on the board of directors. If you move to a governing role on the board, the new CEO/Executive Director will never be able to get out from under your shadow and you run the risk that board members and others will continue to defer to you. You should move out of the way and let the new culture be created.


All nonprofits have a “start-up” phase. If you are in it now and you are reading this article, then you can start to build sustainability with a clear understanding of “Founders Syndrome” and all of the components it entails. For the beginning leadership group, do not rush the process; make sure to embrace achieving clarity of mission, vision, governance structures and norms. Yes, they will change over time, but just like children need to go to school to learn, nonprofit founders and boards need to adapt to change, while learning about best practices for sustainability and high impact.


Written by Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs, for the December edition of NEW’s Notes.  Diana has a commitment to board governance and strong nonprofits.  She is considered an expert in nonprofit board dynamics and governance.

Check out other stories in this month’s NEW’s Notes here.

Apropos to this week’s National Volunteer Week 2011, and our most recent Spring Into Service event, this week’s blog will cover the topic of volunteer engagement and its contribution to the success of your organization. 

A volunteer is defined as a person who voluntarily expresses a willingness to undertake a service.  In the nonprofit world, recruiting, retaining and managing volunteers is a challenge but volunteers are a great resource that.  If implemented correctly, your volunteer engagement program can create success and will also build a network of supporters promoting the work that your organization does. 

Who Are They, These Kind, Giving, Community-Member-Volunteers?

Community members that voluntarily give assistance to your organization will represent a variety of characteristics (age, orientation to your organization, professional career/specialty), but they will be similar in that they all made the decision to take time to help your organization succeed in the work that you do.  Here are a few different examples of types of volunteers you might hear from or see at your volunteer events:

1)    The Community Volunteer: this volunteer is someone (or a group of someones) who come to support your organization at larger, volunteer-based community events—theater production, meal event, race, building renovation projects such as painting or organizing offices, classrooms or libraries, etc.  They might have found you through community bulletin boards or through an online search Like United Way’s Volunteer Solutions site.  These volunteers can be one-time volunteers or you might see them often.  Both are a consistent contributor to the success of your events in the short term, and to the success of your organization in the long term.

2)    The Long Term Volunteer: this volunteer is someone who has the desire to commit his or her help to your organization for an extended amount of time.  Often this volunteer will be assigned a project like database management, file organization, and other organization-specific projects.  These projects are created by the organization and the volunteer together making sure to have shared goals and expectations.

3)    Your Board! Your board members in particular are the ambassadors of your organization’s mission and vision and serve the purpose of propelling you and your organization towards all the success and recognition that it deserves.  It is important to note that the type of volunteering that board members do for your organization will depend on the age and maturity of your organization, your organization’s internal processes, staff size and mutual expectations between the board and your Executive Director.

Of course, all of your volunteers are ambassadors to your organization and this is extremely important to note as we move into the next section.

A Guide to Working With Volunteers

Above all and any guidelines to utilize when considering incorporating volunteers into your organization’s next fundraiser/5K/dinner event/community speaker/forum/roundtable etc, know this above all else: volunteers are not free help.  There is a structure that must be built around your volunteer engagement program(s) to ensure that both your organization and your volunteers are content with the work being done and the relationships being established.

1)    Empower Your Volunteers: HandsOn Network has tons of resources for developing volunteer programs for your organization that ensures consistency in the interaction between organization staff and volunteer community.  Enabling volunteers to do the volunteer work without too much micro-management is best.  An event that is staffed by volunteers needs to be properly planned to the point where volunteers can feel empowered to do what is asked of them independently (of course, there will always be questions and there must be staff available for this purpose).  Additionally, it is always a good idea to identify volunteers that are consistently helpful, independent, focused and committed to the work that is being done through your nonprofit.  These volunteers can be encouraged to take on a leadership role for future events, and might even have insight on how to run volunteer programs for your organization. 

HandsOn Network has a publication for developing volunteer leaders that can be used as an aid in this process of empowering your volunteers. 

2)    Thank Your Volunteers: This is an integral piece of volunteer program coordination at all levels of volunteer management.  Always keep a record of volunteers who worked at your event or who gave their time to your organization in any way.  Thank yous can be as simple as a card or even an e-mail, and can be as extravagant as a gift bag (gift certificates, t-shirts, mugs, etc.) dependent on the event, your budget, and your volunteer population.

Follow these guidelines, and your volunteer community will increase and recruiting and retaining volunteers will become a more simple and directed process that will lead to a broader community understanding of your organization’s mission, vision and purpose.


Ilana Schuman-Stoler is an employee at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work at our Ann Arbor office as a Program Assistant.  Feel free to contact Ilana regarding any of the advice, tools or service mentioned in this post by email at ilana@new.org or via phone at 734-998-0160 ext. 221

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Last week we read about lifelong donors and the importance of cultivating such a donor base.  This week, we continue the conversation with resident resource specialist, Ann Gladwin about relationships and the secret to building them:

The Story

I had a nice chat with Marshall Howard the other day.  His book “Let’s Have Lunch Together” has been instrumental in my take on fundraising–though Mr. Howard still had to set me straight about the story.   The story is me, not the mission of the organization. That’s hard for most of us to grasp; we want to extol the virtues of our nonprofit’s impact on the community:  Look at the great strides we’re making… the number of people served!  According to Mr. Howard, this ‘story’ might rate a 6 out of 10–what about the remaining 4? 

I started to understand that it’s my relationship to the person I’m asking for support that is crucial.  Do they connect with the mission?  Perhaps, but it’s the fact that I asked them that is important.  And they are responding to me; I can ask a stranger for a donation to my cause, but I’m not likely to get results no matter for what I’m asking.  Ask someone I know for support?  Much more likely. 

Wow – that’s powerful!

Real Life Example

Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to Newark, New Jersey public schools serves as a real life example for this theory.   

Mr. Zuckerberg, 26, who grew up in Westchester County and now lives in California, has no particular connection to Newark. But in July, he and Mr. Booker met at a conference and began a continuing conversation about the mayor’s plans for the city, according to people familiar with their relationship.

From The New York Times

There’s that key word again, relationship.  I would treat it as a synonym for success.  

Get Connected

Another proponent of relationship building is Terry Axelrod, founder of Benevon (and guest writer on our blog last week).  She will present a Get Connected workshop for NEW in Detroit on Wednesday, April 27 (9am-10:30am).  This “Relationship Building for Fundraising” is yours to attend for free.  Sign up today!

Also visit Marshall Howard.com to find a multitude of free resources, including his blog. Get a fresh look at a tried and true method for bringing people into your organization.   


Ann Gladwin is Resource Specialist for Nonprofit Enterprise at Work at our Ann Arbor office.  Feel free to contact Ann regarding any of the advice, tools or service mentioned in this post by email at agladwin@new.org or via phone at 734-998-0160 ext. 218.

You can contact Ann with questions on any aspect of nonprofit management.  Call for an appointment to use the Foundation Directory Online at either the Ann Arbor or Detroit office of NEW.

About NEW
NEW’s mission is to help nonprofits succeed by strengthening nonprofit management and offering solutions to issues facing our nonprofit community.

We encourage you to join our conversation!

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-LIKE us on Facebook! http://www.facebook.com/NonprofitEnterpriseAtWork

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