Personifying the Nonprofit Life Cycle

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March 15, 2013; Source:Sonoma Valley Sun

Dr. B.J. Bischoff, a consultant in the Sonoma Valley area of northern California, offers a column (kudos to the Sonoma Valley Sun for featuring a regular column devoted to nonprofits) in which she outlines the stages of a nonprofit organization’s development as a life cycle. For those with significant experience in the nonprofit sector, this is likely nothing new. Consultants across the country have all heard the cry, “X, Y, and Z is happening at my organization. Is that normal?!?!” The answer to that question is almost always, “Yes, it’s perfectly normal. Most nonprofits go through that at your stage of development.”

Bischoff’s rubric mirrors the life cycle of humans: infancy is when a nonprofit is born from the idea of a founder who continues to drive the process; as a toddler, things start to get hectic between the combination of growth and a weak infrastructure; adolescence is often marked by internal conflict between those who want uncontrolled growth and those who want to plan and manage the growth; maturity comes when volunteers and staff are working smoothly together for real impact; lastly, aging entails a period of decline that can lead ultimately to the death of the nonprofit—unless there is a focus on re-invention and continual innovation.

Like other life cycle rubrics that are available, Bischoff’s lens is useful only if used as a tool to help an organization and its leadership understand more about themselves and what they need to do to move to the next level. Bischoff points out what board and staff can or might need to do at each stage. To move from adolescence to maturity, for example, Bischoff writes that order and discipline will be critical, and that the board needs to assume greater control, even if that will be seen as a threat by founders or lead staff.

Other life cycle rubrics include additional stages, such as the life cycle proposed by Susan Kenny Stevens, which suggests that there can be a turn-around stage that follows maturity. As the organization begins to decline, she posits, a change agent can bring it back around to the pre-growth stage or it can simply continue to decline until it finally dies of irrelevance. The IRS also has a rubric for the life cycle of a public charity that can help nonprofits identify the forms or assistance they may need to remain in compliance at the various stages, from start-up through termination. Whichever one aligns with your nonprofit and offers tools you can use is the right one for you. –Rob Meiksins