A case study: lessons from small organizations in trying to share back office

Just released is the case study  from the Infrastructure Collaborative of the Land and Water Partnership. You can find it in the articles section of our website: Sharing back office at small nonprofits: A case study of conservation organizations in RI.

The Infrastructure Collaborative was a collaboration of grassroots land trusts, watershed organizations and technical assistance providers in Rhode Island that started in 2004 and is just wrapping up. With support from Third Sector New England, they formed a learning network to consider how they might pilot a model for sharing services that could improve the administrative and fundraising capacity of small conservation nonprofits.

Throughout, all of the members learned a lot about the challenges of building capacity in very small nonprofits. Rather than crafting a typical final report to a foundation, they decided instead to share their experiences in the form of a case study so that others could benefit as well.

Some of the lessons learned:

  • In the smallest organizations, capacity is in individuals and their institutional knowledge, not organizational systems. When inevitable transitions occur, built capacity can quickly be lost. Attention must be paid to building sustained people capacity somewhere in the network. Transitions often occur at a rate that prohibits capacity building.
  • Small groups need either a large organization with significant built capacity already on their team or they will need a much larger cash investment to buy what they lack.
  • Small nonprofits live in the moment, focused on the urgent needs that caused their formation. Rarely planning for financial or operational sustainability, at the extremes they can be alternately overwhelmed by or overlook even key short-term administrative tasks.
  • Leadership matters. They never would have moved forward without the steady guiding hand of their two lead organizers.  At the same time, leadership changes among the members shifted organizational commitments.
  • Hiring staff and vendors is always risky, even with very diligent screening. A bad selection can thwart the best plans, undermine confidence in a project and create fatal delays in implementation.
  • Research and development investments need to be much bigger to allow experimentation, buy better solutions, and include enough cash to fail, learn and recover. The investment needed for small nonprofits to launch back office services was much larger than they anticipated.

I think you’ll find their experience very interesting.

(I’ve been participating in the project on and off since its inception. In the early years, I was a volunteer representing the RI chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, which was interested in improving the way it supported very small organizations. Later, I provided some training and technical assistance in fundraising and helped them reflect on what they learned — including helping them draft this final summary of their work.)

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