Connections for Success



Nurturing a Sustainable Institutional Identity

Many not-for-profit organizations are founded by the will and impetus of a single – and singular – motivator.   Dance companies, for example, are often formed to showcase and promote the unique talents of a particular choreographer.   Other not-for-profit organizations, especially in the germination stage, are often conceived, built and run by a strong and determined leader.   The vision and dedication of these extraordinary principals can be a necessary jumpstart for fledgling organizations and, most often, results in a clear mission and a focused beginning to new organizations providing charitable services.

Yet as an organization evolves, the burden of carrying out the purpose of the organization cannot rest solely on the shoulders of one – no matter how integral, charismatic and committed he or she may be.  To achieve sustainability and success over generations and nurture what can become a genuine legacy, the foundations of a not-for-profit organization must be firmly based on the institution, not the individual.

A vital board and adequate staffing are crucial to carry out the numerous and varied tasks associated with any not-for-profit endeavor.   A theater company may choose to produce a one-man show, but they cannot run its organization like one – too much work is involved both on and off the stage.   But beyond the need for the combined talents and efforts of trustees, staff and volunteers to manage the programs and administrative functions, there is an accompanying need for a broad and true concept of the identity of the organization.  Organizations can benefit greatly from a distinctive culture created and fostered by a dynamic and purposeful director, but awareness and caution are required to avoid becoming a cult of personality.

The dangers range from a minor blurring of the core principles to a complete collapse of the organization.  No doubt, it is in the best interests of a symphony orchestra to have a stellar conductor with charm and appeal, but the mission of the organization is to promote classical music – not the maestro.  The departure of a larger-than-life personality could create a void from which an ill-prepared organization may not be able to recover, causing them to flounder and fail.  Or, in the absence of good stewardship, the organization could become prey to a take-over by another with less than pure intentions.  Opportunities might be created for oligarchs or other power-seekers to step in for their own advantage.  And should the IRS determine that the organization was serving private interests rather than providing a public benefit, there is a risk of having the tax-exempt status revoked.

Esteem and support the standard-bearers, luminaries and founders, but build the organization with them, not for them. Please contact Margaret Swain at 312.670.7444 if you have any questions.

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