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Re-envisioning for continued percussion.

I first heard the phrase "word salad" on the television show "Boston Legal." Attorney Alan Shore, played by James Spader, under unusual stress triggered by a traumatic childhood experience, sought to speak, but instead uttered sheer nonsensical syllables.

Word salad also comes to mind when nonprofit leaders throw around words like "capacity building," "social innovation," "theory of change," "evidence-based," and other phrases. If you are in the "club," you can sling these words around with authority and conviction and even those who haven't a clue what you're talking about will nod in serious agreement. But most nonprofits are not in the "club" discussing such terms. They are struggling to merely survive somewhere along the continuum of the predictable lifecycle of a nonprofit.

For a working definition of the nonprofit organizational lifecycle, I refer to the TCC Group which "considers the development of an organization's effectiveness to be an additive process where each successive stage requires more growth from prior stages." Stages include:

* Core Program Development or the start-up stage;

* Infrastructure Development where the goal is to build the organizational capacity to support the work;

* The Impact Expansion stage where partnerships and alliances must be developed to scale effective programs and achieve greater impact; and,

* The fourth stage--"Stagnation"--where the organization has a choice between strategic retooling or decline.

Sleepless nights are not reserved just for executives of underperforming nonprofits but also interrupt the dreams of highly successful nonprofit CEOs. So often the focus with capacity building and strategic planning is on ineffective nonprofits or those that need obvious help rather than those that are successful--those that are in the Impact Expansion stage. It's heady and exciting to be in this stage, where high-performing nonprofits gain recognition for innovative, evidence-based outcomes that support their theory of change and validate the success of their internal capacity building efforts. But, as it is said in Proverbs 16:18 pride often goeth before a fall.

As can be expected, it takes significant courage, leadership and expertise to know when to shut down an under-performing program. Conversely, for a successful organization that is "firing on all cylinders," knowing when to re-tool and re-envision goals, strategies or even one's mission can be an even bigger challenge. Recognizing when and how to stretch, expand, tweak the business model and push for new horizons takes very skilled leadership. Growing from a place of success is almost an art form--a huge balancing act--and in the process, CEOs risk losing momentum, losing buy-in from staff, board or external stakeholders or even funders.

Aim too high and, like the mythological Icarus, one risks falling flat. For a beginner organization, failing could be equated to the sound of a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear. But for a tenured, resourced and highly visible community institution, failure is more acute, damaging and in a much more public forum.

OneStar Foundation is at such a peak and we are embarking upon a three-year strategic plan to re-tool our theory of change, mission and strategies. I feel not a small amount of trepidation as I open the door to my board, staff, and external constituents. What if I don't like what they envision? What if I lose control? What if I feel inadequate to the task of implementation?

In "upping the game," expectations are higher and it's a long way down if I fail to lead through the change. Yet, our call to action as nonprofits and indeed, our ethical responsibility as stewards of the public's trust, require that we push ourselves and our organizations toward greater social impact. Perhaps what should really keep me up at night is the question of what if we succeed ...

Elizabeth Darling is chief executive officer of the OneStar Foundation in Austin, Texas. OneStar Foundation is the governor-designated National Service Commission in Texas and administers the AmeriCorps State grant program.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL REPORT
Author:Darling, Elizabeth
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Date:Dec 1, 2016
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