5 Ways to Turn Around Your Stagnant Nonprofit

September 28, 2017

Heather Iliff, CEO, Maryland Nonprofits

Nonprofit organizations go through different stages of development. The start-up organization is full of energy and vitality, sometimes leading to breakneck growth as systems and infrastructure struggle to keep pace. Once an organization has been around for a while doing the same thing for years, our funding streams, systems and infrastructure can become ossified, creating rigidity and stagnation. There is a feeling of doing things “because we have always done them,” and

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and staff leaders may start to disconnect or feel a general “ho-hum” feeling when they come to work. If this sounds familiar to you, here are five strategies to turnaround a stagnating nonprofit organization.

  1. Ask Yourselves the Big, Existential Questions: Why do we exist? What difference are we making? Engage in deeper, more meaningful conversations with your board,

    and people you serve regarding the underlying causes of the issues your organization is working on. If you were to start from scratch, would you create your current sets of programs and structures, or would you build something different? A well-placed set of questions and a genuine dialogue without limitations could help you think about your mission in a new light. It could open new opportunities externally, such as new funding streams or partnerships, as well as new opportunities internally such as developing young leaders and implementing new approaches.
  2. Cultivate Leadership and Diversify: Think broadly about all the people who are involved in and benefit from your mission and programs, and invite them into different kinds of dialogues. Review your own diversity,

    and inclusion practices and intentionally build relationships and share power with your community. Start with engaging a broader range of people and organizations in your big questions, and work them up the “engagement ladder” of greater involvement and responsibility. Get people involved in mini think tanks, task forces, committees or initiatives designed to work on your big existential questions. Use that process to identify, develop and cultivate leaders. Share power with a wider diversity of people who care about your mission inside and outside your organization.
  3. Develop Different Kinds of Partnerships: Most nonprofit organizations are

    and have more needs than they can meet with their current programs and services. Extending our impact through different kinds of partnerships can bring innovation and energy into your organization from the outside, and enhance the ability to meet your mission. Stagnant organizations often have a lot of internal structure and capacity, while a small, all-volunteer group in the community has a lot of energy and more genuine community relationships. Partnerships can be a win-win for both organizations – you gain greater vitality and relevancy, and they connect with your established credibility and capacity.
  4. Bring on a Large Class of New Board Members: Boards in stagnating organizations can sometimes be downright depressing, for the board members themselves and for the stressed executive directors reporting to them. One bold strategy to change this is to bring on 5-10 new board members all at once. Give yourself a full year to 18 months to work on assessing your board composition, identifying the kinds of board members you want to recruit, creating a prospect list and building relationships with them. Hold off on appointing one or two board members at a time, wait until you have a critical mass to bring all at once. Put in a deliberate and well-planned orientation process and relationship-building time for the veteran and new board members. You’ll be amazed at how the whole board dynamic can turnaround really quickly!
  5. Get Engaged in Advocacy and Something Bigger: One source of stagnation for nonprofits can be a “treadmill” feeling where people keep providing the same services to similar populations, with similar

    but don’t feel they are making progress on the bigger issues and underlying causes. Getting stakeholders – including board, staff and the people you serve – involved in public policy can provide vitality, points of interest and connections to others that get people excited. Join local, state and national associations of

    and those that specialize in your field. Your credibility in your program areas can make you a powerful advocate, and that experience can inspire donors, board

    and others to get more involved in your organization.


    Maryland Nonprofits 25th Annual Conference on October 3-4, 2017 includes a great lineup of speakers and sessions designed to help revitalize your organization and take your leadership to the next level! The keynote speaker, Peter Berns of Arc will share effective inclusion and advocacy strategies. Sessions on managing organizational change, engaging stakeholders, building leadership and developing your board can help revitalize your thinking and toolkit for change. Maryland Nonprofits Consulting Group can also help your organization design its own turnaround strategy. Visit www.marylandnonprofits.org for more information and to register for the conference.