Placing The Cart Before The Horse

The Non-Profit Providing Services Prior to the Board of Directors is Functioning

photo-of-the-week_1Many non-profit organizations are established to meet social, educational, health, or social welfare needs, among others, that are not being presently met by the public or private sectors. An individual or a group of people will get together to establish and implement the needed services. Often their commitment is based on their passion and they want very much to meet the pressing needs they have identified. In many cases, the establishment of a non-profit is tied to the actual needs of the founders and their families.

People who deal with issues in their personal lives are closest to the challenges they are experiencing and many times they have been frustrated by the lack of responsiveness of the existing constellation of services. They may have grown tired of fighting the “system”, whichever system it may be, for the services they need, and so they decide to initiate services to meet their needs and the needs of other people who are dealing with the same issues. The services they develop may range from children with special needs to frail elderly parents who are suffering from dementia.

Often the pressing needs thrust these motivated and dedicated people to quickly form the non-profit agency and immediately develop the needed services. Although they fulfill all the legal requirements for setting up and organizing a registered non-profit organization they frequently skip over some of the basic steps in creating a voluntary agency. The main reason they have invested in creating alternate or additional services is to provide what is glaringly absent in their understanding of the needs. Thus, they organize the provision of services first and assume the organizational foundation for the non-profit organization will develop in “due time”.

Unfortunately, they wind up skipping some very important steps. They create a “board of directors” to meet the legal requirements, however, much of the time they do not focus on the important functions of the board. For example, they do not work with the board in an ongoing way to develop the budget, establish policy, develop a strategy for financial sustainability, and other key functions. The board is viewed in a more informal way and may often be composed of close friends, colleagues, and others who understand the founder’s passion and commitment.

When this does happen the people who began the enterprise out of this strong feeling of commitment and passion find themselves overwhelmed by the organizational needs that have placed “temporarily” on the side. Often the founding member(s) think the organizational issues will work themselves out because their commitment to the cause is what is really important. By focusing on the services they are putting “the cart before the horse.”

The board of directors should be formed and developed prior to the implementation of services. Policies should be clearly defined and guidelines should be set for the fiscal management of the organization. Although this may seem overly bureaucratic and the passionate founders may view this as slowing down the implementation of services, a more structured approach often protects those who are most committed to the programs.

Once a working board of directors is functioning then a finance committee can plan for the fiscal operation and set the budget. A program committee can oversee the development of a sound and full educational program. When there is a need for raising additional funds a standing resource development committee can work along with the other committees of the board and the annual fundraising campaign to insure there are adequate funds to hire adequate staff to implement the programs.

The “founders” who may also be those working on the ground need to have the backing and support of an operative and active board of directors. It is rare that the board can be created and developed once the program is functioning. The correct process has to be put in place and a meaningful experience has to be created for the volunteers who will be serving on the board of directors. They plan for the provision of the needed services through their initial and continuing involvement.

In order for the people who have been responsive to emerging need(s) and have been creative in developing new approaches to service delivery to protect their “investment” and themselves from burn-out they need to work in a more structured fashion. They need to focus on the development of the board of directors and the appropriate committees. The horse needs to be placed before the cart and a clear organizational structure has to be put in place before the doors open to those in need. The more structured approach is not difficult to implement and will ultimately enhance the agency’s provision of services and foster the founders’ commitment to the organization and its programs.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.