What Happens Before a Nonprofit Is Born?

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“Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”

Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature

Sometimes I do assessments of nonprofits, and one of the first things I ask is to be told the birthing story of the group as a group. The reason why I start there is because the emergence story often contains a deep emotional belief system that gets repeated in many different parts of the organization over time. In other words, the birthing story can illuminate a basic design element—a fractal—that is repeated over time even as an organization matures. It is a key to organizational logic.

Nonprofits do not spring out of nothingness; they emerge from the commitments of their founders—commitments that are often held long before the group gets anywhere near formal. But this nascent stage of nonprofits, which includes the birth itself, remains largely unexplored . . . until now.

The article NPQ is featuring today, “The Nascent Nonprofit Organization: What Happens Before a Nonprofit Is Born,” comes from our new spring 2015 edition, “Births and Deaths in the Nonprofit Sector.” In it, Fredrik Andersson describes the ways in which “what transpires during the nascent stage leaves an enduring imprint on the new organization.”

This article is, I think, one of the more important ones we have published—and in celebration of this I invite you to consider the powerful emergence story of your own organization, write it down with some reflections on how the imprint of pre-birth has endured, and submit it to NPQ for our “Voices from the Field” section.

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