Perhaps you saw my hometown on the national news. It was the one covered in saltwater, seaweed-embedded ice. This was the second biggest snow storm I can remember. The last one didn’t just coat the shoreline in ice, it destroyed a whole bunch of houses. The difference this time–what mitigated the damage–had to do with the phase of the moon being connected to the level of the tide. But we here have had experience with the combination of winter wind, snow, the ocean effect, and high tides.

Still, some people in my hometown waited too long to move their cars, until they just floated off on their own. Others drove down and got mired on Atlantic Avenue when it had already been flooded for five or six hours and the TV was reporting just that fact on the average of once every fifteen minutes.

It leaves you wondering. . . what kind of warnings do we need in order to know when to change our game?

If you watch for patterns in any kind of system, familiar signifiers can provide you with a kindly "heads up!" when you most need it. Our organizations have patterns in the ways that they develop, and knowing these patterns can help us avoid the really bad sink holes that open up in front of us from time to time. But you have to take the time to know an awful lot of organizations to identify patterns. You have to have watched a lot of storms.

Paul Light fits this profile: he’s something of an anthropologist and has graced the NPQ Winter issue with his slightly different take on the typical phases of nonprofit development. The article is excerpted from a chapter in his recent book, “The Case for Capacity Building and the Evidence to Support It.”

I recently watched Paul as he presented these patterns (and what to do if you get stuck in one) to a gathering of nonprofits of all ages, shapes and sizes in Memphis and the “AHA!” looks on the faces of participants convinced me to share this with you.

If you are interested in other readings on the subject, you might look to Larry Greiner’s “Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow.”

As always, we would love to know what you think of Paul Light’s article. Do you agree with it? Where does your organization sit within this model? What blocks you from moving on?