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Allison Gauss
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How Nonprofits Can Overcome a Growth Plateau

Like all businesses, many nonprofit organizations want to expand their operations, either to solve their problem at a larger scale or to address other elements of the problem. Smart organizations continually set goals to improve their work and elevate their impact. It’s not uncommon, though, for nonprofits’ growth to plateau somewhere along the way.

When your organization isn’t making huge strides forward, it can frustrate your team and even sap the passion from your community.

If you feel like your nonprofit has been coasting or just “getting by,” it’s time to take a closer look at what’s holding you back. Once you identify your biggest roadblock, you can make a plan to overcome it.

Diagnose Your Growth Plateau

The first step to overcoming your nonprofit’s growth plateau is identifying the core issue behind it. An organization can experience a growth plateau for several different reasons.

Some of the most common problems that limit nonprofits are…

  • Lack of funds – Without adequate resources, you can’t improve and expand your programs, let alone plan for the future.
  • Lack of infrastructure or staff – To maximize impact, a nonprofit needs the tools to execute their mission and a qualified team to implement them.
  • Lack of need – While it’s smart to carefully define your mission, there may come a time when your nonprofit is ready to do more. For example, if you have traditionally limited your programs to a specific population, whom you are now serving very well, you might be ready to extend your work to more people.
  • Lack of inspiration – Being set in your ways or too focused on the minutiae of your daily work can keep your nonprofit from thinking big. To make significant change, organizations need to have a vision for a better future and bring innovative solutions to their cause.

 
Often, several of these factors will contribute to a growth plateau, but that is partially because one issue can lead to another. For instance, your nonprofit may be understaffed and therefore unable to implement your programs on a larger scale. But if the organization is aware that this is limiting them, it may be a lack of funding that keeps it from hiring someone.

To break through your growth plateau, ask yourself which of these issues is most preventing your nonprofit from being the organization it wants to be.

Chart Your Path to the Next Level

With your biggest roadblock in mind, your organization can start brainstorming ways to move forward. If funding is the largest factor, you can evaluate your development strategy and focus your team on boosting fundraising. While pursuing a new revenue source can help, the Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog has noted that many of the world’s biggest and most prominent nonprofits, such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Habitat for Humanity International, focus their development strategy on one primary funding source. With this in mind, very large organizations should study their current main funders and look for opportunities to grow.

On the other hand, maybe your organization is doing reasonably well with funding, but everyone is overstretched and you don’t have the manpower to expand your programs. In this case, you should consider what new teammate would make the biggest difference. While it requires some work to recruit the right person, the boost it gives to your nonprofit will be worth the investment of time and effort.

For those nonprofits struggling with a lack of purpose and inspiration, it’s time to get creative. One way to do this is to get your team together to revisit your mission and reignite your passion. Try gathering for a brainstorm in which everyone is invited to think big. What would your organization do if money was no object? What new program would accelerate your progress?

The ideas won’t all be practical, but coming at your work with a new approach can help you find new solutions and think creatively. The best ideas usually happen when you ask “what if?” so try to push your team to think beyond your limitations.

Think Big at the Collaborative + Classy Awards.

The Next Step Forward

No matter what has been holding your nonprofit back, you need to take action to incite new growth. Having identified the main issues underlying your growth plateau, set concrete goals to address them. An organization that has been limited by funding should decide which revenue sources to revamp and how much they want to raise. If you need more manpower, decide which positions you need and set a target date for new hires.

With your next steps charted, your nonprofit can begin nurturing growth again. Many organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, will face a plateau or rut at some point. These periods, though, can be overcome by looking at the big picture and committing yourself to reach the next level.


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