organizations facing the same challenges? These are incredibly valuable experiences. We hope that our grantees see our funds as an endorsement of both their project and their willingness to experiment. Transition requires experimentation. Manage expectations My husband is a chemist, quick to wax philosophic about the nature of experimentation. He reminds me that experiments don’t succeed or fail; rather, they support or refute your hypothesis, what you expect to happen. That’s why managing expectations during periods of transition is paramount. Nonprofit leaders are tempted to promise the world, particularly when trying to prove themselves in a new role. We add items to our to-do list or say yes to a donor’s unconventional request. It may seem okay to do in isolation, but soon this list of requests becomes overwhelming and unmanageable, and it draws us away from pursuing the organization’s core mission in a focused and effective way. This has been a difficult lesson for me to learn, but I’ve come to see how critical it is to be honest with board members, coworkers, donors, and others about what I can and cannot accomplish, and what my organization can do. With very few exceptions, the Foundation’s friends and partners understand. They are as invested in
my success as they are in the organization overall. When they know what to expect from me, they can participate more effectively and feel comfortable stepping in to help. At the organizational level, approaching programs or decisions on a case by case basis to satisfy every stakeholder simply isn’t scalable or sustainable. As our organizations grow,we must be open to new approaches that can grow with us. We also need to consider how those approaches change expectations for our staff and volunteers, the expectations we have of them, and those they have of the organization. The Foundation has expanded and changed its scope in some significant ways over the last three years. We collaborate with dozens of organizations on a diverse array of projects, and we work with hundreds of donors.That has necessitated transitioning from an extremely hands-on board with deep knowledge of our activities, to a more strategic board that provides broad guidance and oversight and delegates authority to committees and staff. For some of our longtime volunteer leaders, this transition has created some anxiety. They expect to be well versed in the day-to-day details of every project and to make decisions based on those details. This simply is not possible anymore. If we spent our board meetings reviewing the details of every project with
which we’re involved, we’d be meeting for days! As nonprofits navigate transition, they must acknowledge the discomfort that can come when individual expectations clash with organizational realities. In particular, staff and volunteer leaders should reevaluate expectations, and they should collectively develop methods of accountability to meet or adjust those expectations when necessary. Final thoughts Periods of transition for us as individuals and as organizations can be disorienting until we accept that the process never really ends, nor should it. By learning about ourselves, understanding expectations and limitations, and letting go of the idea that we can bring everyone along with us, we can thrive in the process of transition. We can avoid taking ourselves so seriously and just enjoy giving back to our communities. Dr. Jessica Wirgau is Executive Director of the Community Foundation of the New River Valley located in Christiansburg, Virginia, a place-based foundation working with local donors to provide grants, scholarships, and capacity-building opportunities for nonprofits. She enjoys exploring how the Foundation can draw diverse organizations together around common challenges and use its grant-funding and capacity-building activities to address critical community needs. www.cfnrv.org
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