Establishing new organizations
Ross Woods, rev. 2013, 2020
This e-book describes the steps in starting a new community organization. At some stages as we go through, we'll link to a fictitious organization, the Oak Valley Church. You'll see how it grew, the challenges it faced, and what it could have done about each one.
Stage one: Make a start
Almost all community organizations start out as a group of friends who have a common goal and set out to achieve it. It's then a matter of getting a little better organized, and working with a wider network of interested friends.
In the parallel article, a fictitious organization started as a small group and eventually went through a life cycle. It grew, faced challenges, and eventually faced death. However, if you're starting a formal program inside an existing institution, you'll find that structures and expectations are much clearer and less personal.
In the beginning, their wealth is in their ideas and their commitment. They usually:
- have one person or couple whom they identify as the leader
- work together well as a group
- hold fairly informal meetings
- don't have a lot of specialized expertise
They often don't think of what they do as projects (even though they are), just opportunities to get something done. There might not be a lot of planning, just the willingness to use opportunities to do something helpful.
Projects are small, personal, and informally organized. They are focused, probably fairly effective, and done in their spare time with quite minimal finances. At this stage, for example, you can organize tutoring for a a group of neighborhood kids, but you can't build a ten-million-dollar school. You can sponsor a dozen orphans overseas, but you probably can't start an orphanage for 200 kids. Or you can build a well for a village, but you can't solve the water problems for a province.
This stage also presents some dangers:
- Don't become a talkfest that never actually starts doing something. Good leadership should help it move past the talk stage.
- Don't think you know how to do it. You will probably hit a steep learning curve as a group.
- Don't just do one project and die. When it's done, review it to learn what you can from it, then start the next one.
- Don't start talking about government funding and large projects unless you already have strong links with major sponsors and the expertise to implement them. It is more important to have small projects that work.
Even though you're still a small organization, you start to notice changes.
- You have attracted some new people, perhaps with slightly different ideas.
- Some of your original people might drop out. For some it will be painful, especially if they feel pushed aside by a wave of new people.
- You increasingly want to work with other organizations with similar goals.
- The business side of the organization needs to be better organized, for example, your financial reporting, assessment of business risk, record keeping, banking.
- Just to stay organized, your meetings are now business meetings and are a bit more formal.
- You realize that some of your projects could be eligible for outside funding and perhaps tax deductibility. You see advantages. In some countries, this includes government grants.
- You realize that there are limits to what you can do as volunteers. To make any progress, you will have to start raising enough money to employ someone. This is a major financial hurdle, but one that you must overcome if you are going to continue.
So now you need to go through the procedure to get incorporated.
Build on what you have: Do your planning
You'll probably need to build on what you started with, keep getting better organized, and recruiting more interested friends. You're still doing the same thing, but growing it and learning a lot.
After a while, it's quite likely that your purpose will become a little blurred. Each team member will have their own idea of what it is, and someone will say that we need some planning and direction. How long this takes will depend on the kind of people you have on the team and what you are trying to do. It will come earlier if you have highly organized people or are trying to do something quite complicated. In any case, that's when you need to start working to a plan.
At about this stage, it becomes clear that the main leader cannot do everything and has to delegate some of thoese responsiblities.
It is normally impossible to make a strategic plan alone, and you should work as a team as senior management and your board. Working together usually involves considerable negotiation, but done well, it generates support. If you let people have a real say and respect their viewpoints, people will think it is their own idea. In fact, they will probably see weaknesses in your ideas and improve them. Getting agreement from other key stakeholders and target groups is a little more difficult. If you have done a budget and demonstrated how it can be resourced, then you have made considerable progress. In some cases, you may need to write submissions to gain funding.
Research the need for development and change. Your research methods might include one or more of the following: review the literature for trends and opportunities, use focused informal interviews of staff, current clients, or hoped-for clients, analyze the feedback from your existing programs, use focus groups. Some of the questions you might want to ask are:
- How will you make the program as effective as possible? (And what do you mean by "effective"? It implies some kind of criterion.)
- Check for any other requirements that you must meet, which are the Critical Success Factors (CSFs) e.g. duty of care.
- Can you demonstrate how the plan meets the organization's objectives? Or do you need to write new objectives in your planning?
- What are the risks associated with your strategy?
- What do you need to make it work?
- How will you manage the change? (This is usually quite easy in a small program, but more difficult at teh program get bigger.)
When you have proposed a strategy, evaluate it against your existing programs and services. Say clearly how it is better, not just change. Are there any gaps?
Make detailed implementation plans
Next, write a full implementation plan and a more detailed budget. You will need to write up enough implementation plans at least to demonstrate feasibility. Don't worry, this will cut your workload later.
This will probably be filling out detail on the major plan you have already done. It should define an organizational structure and also include strategies for contingencies. Say how you will evaluate it and what reporting you will do. The evaluation strategy and related techniques should meet the needs of decision-makers, funding organizations and stakeholders.
Check your policies and procedures. You may need to write more to cover the management of staff, equipment and other physical assets. They should include your documentation systems.
You might hold a meeting of senior staff to collect ideas for detailed planning, or you could write it yourself and let senior staff critique it. Listen for their ideas.
Then get your supervisor or Board to sign off on the detailed planning. If the document is long and complex, they might not read it all themselves, but could quite likely get an expert opinion on it.
Put your plan into practice
Make sure you communicate all operational details to your staff. Depending on the size and complexity of your orgaization, you might need to inform them of:
- schedules and deadlines
- policies and procedures
- resources and financial management
- staffing guidelines and limits
- record-keeping requirements
- communication and reporting
- delegation, and
- financial procedures.
While the program is running, support your staff so that they keep on track. Actively seek their feedback so that you can suggest program modifications.
And monitor the effectiveness of your policies and procedures. In a new program, you will probably need to educate staff about the policies and procedures, but you might also find that your policies and procedures don't work as well as envisaged, and you need to implement modifications.
And keep an eye on the budget and your cash-flow. You will probably face the pressure of lacking funds when you most need them.
Evaluation and reporting
You will need to evaluate the new program and report to your supervisor or the board.
As you have already told people how the evaluation will be done, its just a matter of going ahead and doing it. Recommend changes to keep your program on track. For some of them you might need approval. When you've submitted it, go ahead with the changes.
As the organization grows, you realize you need more professionalism and expertise for:
- Governance and management, especially in the board and in senior management
- Changing from a board on management to a board of governance.
- Attracting external funding
- Using funding
- More sophisticated budgeting and financial management
Besides, the organization has new kinds of business risk:
- You now interact with government more and have paid employees. These bring more legal obligations and risks of non-compliance with the law.
- You have more contracts (including funding) and they are more complex. Keeping your end of the deal for each one becomes very complex.
- You depend more heavily on more sophisticated technology.
- You now operate in a wider, more complex marketplace.
- You are finding it harder to forecast business conditions and to calculate business risk.
Simplify and formalize
Making the transition from a small to a medium size organization is a high-risk stage. Many organizations fail because they don't see it coming and don't make the changes. In business, it's one of the easiest stages to go broke.
In short, you need simple systems that do everything you need and that you can multiply easily. For example, you'd be getting too big for everybody to give some information items at a weekly staff meeting. So your options are:
- Put it on a database, where everybody fills in the information.
- Make a simple form with instructions at the top of the page. It is easy to make more copies and to train people how to use them.
- Have a system of team meetings.
Make a map of your work-flow. It is clear who does what? Are lines of accountability clear? Do people have the right amount of time to get things done? What needs to be flexible and what needs to be rigid?
Are your simple systems written down in a policy or procedure? Do you have simple systems for all your core activities:
- making decisions
- managing risks and solving problems
- managing finances and resources
- inducting and training new staff
- terminating them
- starting, conducting, and concluding projects
Though necessary, these changes typically generate lots of pain:
- The people who remember the network of friends might feel that they are being phased out.
- You have some people who need to be phased out.
- The organization needs to review its purposes, and probably update them.
- The organization faces a change of leadership, because the CEO who built a small organization is usually not the best person to lead a large organization.
- The board members lack the mix of skills for a more professional organization.
If you can't make these changes, you can't grow, and you could stagnate and die.
Your constituency will change, and you will need to communicate with them in different ways.