Heather Comstock Connects

Helping nonprofits and other volunteer organizations develop strong relationships and a clear voice in the community.

Learning from Opposites

Snow changes how things appear. How can we see our organizations in a different way?

Snow changes how things appear. How can we see our organizations in a different way? Photo (c) Heather Comstock 2010

I am preparing for another presentation at the Annapolis Library next week and I am thinking about nonprofit start up. Doing these presentations is always enjoyable because of the people I get to meet. It is also a wee bit intimidating. As I think about the kinds of organizations the attendees represent or are interested in starting, here’s a few opposing structures and what they can learn from each other!

Professional associations vs human service organizations – I have worked with both types of groups and I think there are lessons that can be adapted. Professional associations are created and operated by a group of professionals for the benefit of their peers. These organizations live and die by their membership and must constantly provide what their members need in order to stay viable. They care deeply about customer service. Human service organizations need to remember to stay abreast of the latest evidence and trends about effective methods for their area of concern but can sometimes let customer service fall to the side in the trenches of dealing with difficult human problems. For both types, there’s a danger of the board becoming insulated from the people you serve. Have a client representative on your board or keep a focus group going so that you don’t miss the subtleties of the community you serve.

All volunteer versus paid staff – many times small all-volunteer organizations struggle to stay on top of routine activities and administrative duties and gaze enviously upon those organizations who can afford to have office space and paid staff to complete these tasks.  Trust me when I tell you, paid staff organizations are many times just as flustered and reactionary as a nonprofit without staff. Honestly, it comes down to organization and training. Even all-volunteer groups can take advantage of training at www.stayexempt.org, Maryland Nonprofits, or even local groups such as the Association of Community Services or at your local library! Seek out training opportunities and technical assistance help. Don’t slog up the learning curve alone.

Subgroups versus independent organizations – The benefit subgroups often have is that they have structure already in place by the parent organization. The Parent Teacher Association for example, offers pre-written by-laws, insurance, and group tax exemption saving smaller groups thousands of dollars and headache. Their model is such that they know the vast majority of their local leaders are inexperienced and don’t want a crash course in nonprofit management. Parents want to get in, support their local school, and get out.  Independent groups have to do all that alone without help and guidance. The structural support can be nice and helpful, but it can also be suffocating if you have ideas that don’t fit neatly within the existing framework. Independent  organizations can overcome some of this by looking to larger groups for support and assistance such as associations for groups serving the same populations. An example of this is the National Park Friends Alliance.

Large national organizations versus small community-based organizations – Larger organizations have the benefit of the economy of scale. They may be able to do more on a higher level because they can afford paid staff such as grant writers and development directors that can make a huge difference in financing their activities or in terms of advocacy. That said, it is easy for those large organization to not understand some of the communities they serve. Larger organizations can adapt some of the models for ensuring they stay in touch with the communities they serve. Smaller groups can capitalize on their local connections and understanding of the problem to tell compelling stories and gain support. Large or small, your community cares most about the real impact of the organization on their neighborhood.

The bottom line is that there are good techniques, best practices, and neat ideas that are all around us. If you find something interesting, useful, or effective, take a look and see if it might work for your organization!


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