November 22, 2017

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Sometimes you need to get smaller to grow bigger

About three months ago, I became executive director for a little nonprofit called Voices for Earth Justice. After four years of contract project management for big nonprofits, I was eager to get back to the kind of high-impact local work a small nonprofit can do. 

 

Voices for Earth Justice formed in 2002 when two Catholic women, Patty and Sister Janet, saw that nobody was helping the faith community engage in environmental issues. 

 

Over the next 15 years, Patty and Sister Janet built a small--but generous, hard-working, and passionate--community of supporters. Voices for Earth Justice accomplished its work through collaboration, influence, and partnerships that are easy to find in the faith community. 

 

In 2016, Patty announced her retirement after 14 years as executive director. She moved out of the area to be closer to her daughter and grandchild. Some longtime board members also stepped away. This year, Sister Janet--still on the board--announced her intention to retire soon.

 

Our only two staff members--the assistant executive director and the program director--both resigned around the time that the board hired me. 

 

So here we are: Less than three months into my time as executive director and down to five board members (with one leaving in 2018) and no staff.  

 

How would you feel if you were me? Have you ever been in this situation? Are you in it now? 

 

If I was new at this, I'd feel like we're losing.

 

But I'm not new at this and I don't feel like we're losing. 

 

On the contrary, we are gaining, growing...winning.

 

I know this because of the retreat I attended last weekend with the five remaining board members. It was one of the best board activities I've ever experienced. The communication, energy, focus, and ideas were flowing and growing. We left that room with clarity, direction, and purpose. Suddenly, 2018 is looking very bright for Voices for Earth Justice.

 

Why?

 

Because the six people in that room are committed. Each one of us is passionate, personal, and purposeful about Voices for Earth Justice. When I say "committed" I mean ready to do some work, ready to give some time, ready to talk to some friends, ready to write some checks.

 

The six people in that room are a strong core group--a nucleus--around which the next iteration of Voices for Earth Justice can build and grow. 

 

I've told many small nonprofit leaders through the years: I'd rather have five passionate, personal, and purposeful board members who are ready to go to work than 50 board members who are popular and wealthy, but distracted and half-hearted. 

 

When you have a core team of committed people, being small is an advantage, a blessing, a strength. You have the hands, hearts, and minds to get some things done effectively and quickly, but without the inertia and limitations of a big organization with lots of extra people, financial obligations, and the weight of pre-existing expectations. 

 

After so many years of working in the nonprofit sector, I'm finally happy about "losing." I don't think of it as losing anymore. I think of it as "breaking down muscles so they grow back stronger," "making room for new people and resources," or "pruning the tree." 

 

Sometimes getting smaller is the right way to do bigger things now and in the future.

 

Onward and upward!