Recently, while in Bloomington, IL, the hotel shuttle driver dropped me off with the comment “welcome to the smallest airport I’ve ever seen.” He was surprised when I assured him that I had seen several airports with fewer than nine gates.
People in smaller towns invariably apologize for their tiny airports. But these small facilities are a breath of fresh air. They are close to the center of town, easy to get to and have little traffic. The security lines are short, the pace is slower, and the people are decidedly more friendly. True there is probably only one place to get a bite to eat and no national high-caffeine coffee chains, but at the end of the day planes depart and people get where they are going...perhaps even with a smile on their face and without the tension headache they might get in Atlanta or Chicago.
Nonprofit organizations often suffer from these same negative feelings about their budget size, full-time head count or service area. “Our budget is only…” or “The population here is just…” are quotes I hear repeatedly. But size alone does not equate to significance, outcomes or impact. So, before you decide to expand, consider these questions.
What is your motivation to grow?
Serving the unmet needs in your community with more staff, more programs and longer hours is a good reason to grow. The same is true for expanding into neighboring communities where services like yours don’t exist. Take a pause if you think you may be getting larger for the sake of being larger or duplicating services people can access elsewhere.
Have you maximized the efficiency of your current state?
Being efficient with what you have before expanding your footprint can be an important intermediate step or, perhaps, an alternative to straight-up growth. Just like the home improvement shows that blow out non-load bearing walls and remodel basements and attics, reimagining your current space – or program delivery model – may yield new opportunities to impact your community without added square footage.
How will growth impact your effectiveness?
Take a hard look at your team and organizational structure. Think about what makes your organization special and what it will take to maintain the level of effectiveness across a larger group of constituents. Find a way to ensure the deep and important impact you’re having is replicated across a larger constituency.
Can you maintain your sense of connectedness and community?
You are likely blessed to have great relationships between staff, the people you serve and your larger community. If that’s one of your key differentiators, then don’t sacrifice it when you grow. Leverage it instead and maintain the benefits of feeling small even while growing.
How will growth effect your financial resources?
Expansion of any kind creates a strain on your financial status. New government contracts likely require costs to be paid up front then reimbursed by the agency. New programs may take time to gain traction. New or expanded physical facilities may have to be paid for long before donations or program fees are collected. There will be a period where your cash reserves will be depleted. Plan for it, project it, monitor it and survive it!
As your organization thinks about and plans for growth, make sure you ask the questions that will help you not just grow, but grow smart.
If you’ve got specific questions about your project and how you’re hoping to grow your impact, please reach out in the comments below.