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Nov 27, 2023 | Blog

Protecting Time and Space to Build Capacity

By Dorla Tune, Organizational Consultant at Vantage Point

During the past three years as Vantage Point’s Organizational Consultant, I’ve worked closely with a variety of non-profit organizations. Though each organization has its unique place in the vast sector, more than a few common themes have emerged. What rises to the top is the importance of time and (mental) space. How are organizations choosing to slow down and intentionally infuse time into their daily, monthly, or annual cycle of activities for reflection, evaluation, planning, and rest? The Nonprofit Lifecycles Self-Assessment workshop is my favourite session to facilitate for an organization because the process requires leadership and key staff to take much needed time and space to:  

  1. conduct a thoughtful review of where the nonprofit is, in relation to various aspects of its capacity;  
  2. develop non-judgmental self-awareness about where their organization and its critical capacity areas are in their lifecycle to inform better decision making and planning; and 
  3. encourage the use of self-care to accept the reality of their organization’s capacity while clarifying where and how it needs to grow.

The Lifecycles Self-Assessment allows an organization to methodically look at five areas of capacity that ensures its ability to uphold its mission: programs, governance, management/staffing, financial resources, and systems; and to analyse where along a continuum of seven lifecycle stages (idea, start-up, growth, maturity, decline, turnaround, sunset) each area and the overall organization is located. The time spent debriefing a Lifecycles Self-Assessment is full of exciting generative conversations as board members and staff reconnect with the passion inspired by the organization’s mission and work. Participants begin to see pathways to improve the impact of their work and build capacity.  

Organizations experience a tension when the demand for their programs begins to put a strain on the other areas of capacity. In the intense growth stage, organizations and staff feel overwhelmed with too much to do in too little time and become beholden to the culture of urgency. Taking the time to apply the Lifecycles framework encourages leadership to emerge from the weeds and obtain a holistic bird’s eye view of their organization’s capacity. Following which, they can become focused on a specific priority area and to narrow down tangible and intersecting steps to increase efficiencies that better support program demand and implementation. Leadership is also encouraged to look at the state of overwhelm and think about if the demand for and breadth of programming is appropriate or a result of mission creep.  

One of the most valuable benefits of the framework is how it depersonalizes internal struggles and weaknesses organizations face.  Once learning the common characteristics of a lifecycle stage and how it may impact your board or staffing, it is easier to look at objective ways to address the challenges, rather than feeling as though the people themselves are not up to par. All organizations face growing pains at various points in their lifecycle. Discussing these challenges within the framework’s context creates a safer space to have hard conversations about the gaps or tensions preventing growth or maturity in key capacity areas.  

As organizations become familiar and comfortable with the lifecycle’s framework, it can be applied in several different ways.  We have supported or witnessed many useful applications of the framework. A few are mentioned here.  

  1. Applying the framework in detail to a targeted area, for example: 
    • Analyse which programs carry different lifecycle stage characteristics and determine if some should wind down. This can create more space for capacity or allow for a reallocation of resources to increase the depth and quality of core programming. 
    • Analyse the staffing structures and related human resource systems within program areas or departments to ensure there is role clarity and positions that ensure organizational sustainability. 
    • Conduct comprehensive systems change analysis and improvement planning, as systems touch all major capacity areas.   
  2. When a major leadership transition is taking place, conducting a lifecycles self-assessment provides an incoming ED, CEO, or COO with a valuable snapshot of which capacity areas need care and attention. 
  3. As a preparatory step to in advance of strategic planning. Most organizations will have a strategic pillar dedicated to increasing organizational capacity. Engaging in this process ensures capacity improvement actions are included from both a strategic and operational perspectives. 

Vantage Point’s Capacity Lab is a seven-week blend of in-class learning and expert consulting, scheduled over three months, that uses the Lifecycle Self-Assessment as its foundational tool. The lab is designed to give organizational leaders that critical space and time to reflect, evaluate and plan.  Leaders are supported to examine each capacity area and lifecycle stage for their own organization. Capacity Lab provides clarity on the best way to move your organization forward by, conducting an organizational lifecycle assessment, learning, and applying the framework, and creating a capacity improvement plan to tackle roadblocks and create a path to greater impact.  

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Building from a strong foundation of excellent governance, leadership, planning, and people practices, Abundant Not-For-Profits create meaningful o…

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