The Mid-Sized Nonprofit Squeeze

March 6, 2013

By Michael Alexander

Mid-sized nonprofit organizations may have one of the toughest challenges of all nonprofits.  They are staffed by professionals who need to be paid.  They are not the beneficiaries of a “labor of love” workforce like many of the small nonprofits that often continue to do their good and valued work with heavy reliance on volunteer labor.    And their communities – including donors, patrons, clients and other agencies – expect them to operate with the efficiency of large budget organizations.

Well run large-budget nonprofits can afford to hire specialists and assign them specific tasks.  Mid-sized nonprofits have to hire generalists who end up wearing many hats.  For example, mid-sized nonprofits have one and two person development departments staffed by a lead generalist and, maybe, one or more specialists-in-training.  Our Development Director has to be good at foundation grant writing, working with high-worth individual donors, selling sponsorships, planning and executing broad community-based membership campaigns and report writing among other skills.   All nonprofits believe they are human resource poor (and they probably are) but the mid-sized struggle to keep delivering services at excellent levels so they can attract greater funding and grow with “thin” labor pools .

While growing, they struggle to get as much use out of every dollar that they have; get full value out of every employee they have; and continue to impress all their stakeholders that they continue to be a value to their communities.  Staff burn-out is a constant concern.  Passion only carries an organization so far.

I often say that I am so busy fighting forest fires that I don’t have time to develop a fire prevention plan.   But I have had time to think about some of the solutions that would be helpful to us.  Of late, a number of foundations have invited mid-sized nonprofit board and staff leaders to attend workshops that provide great ideas on how to more effectively use their time and other resources.  We need hands-on, in-office specialists who can help us figure out how to use our resources most wisely, how to break bad habits and how to position ourselves to stay valuable to the communities we serve.

This is also a good time for the philanthropic community and nonprofits to work together to identify ways that certain specialists could be employed by a collective of nonprofits who need certain services but cannot afford to have them in-house full time.   There are times when each of us prefers to have an employer/employee relationship with a critical service provider because we will have more direct control on how s/he performs the duties of the job.

I believe this opens up a great opportunity for the philanthropic community and collectives of nonprofits to work together.  I would love to hear from others about this issue.

Michael Alexander is the Executive and Artistic Director of Grand Performances

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