Too Big to Fail?

For 20 years, the Nonprofit Management Fund promoted the importance of building a strong organizational infrastructure. Over and over, we espoused good management through great leadership.  We funded planning, governance, staff development, financial management, fundraising, marketing, etc. so that every aspect of administration could be reinforced.

  • Boards need to fulfill all of their governance responsibilities.
  • Programs must further the mission.
  • Staff must be developed into an organization’s greatest asset.
  • Mission and vision should be clearly articulated.
  • Funding streams should be diverse.
  • Financial management is crucial to stability and longevity.
  • Communications to the public should be transparent and engaging.

This list is just a shortened version of a lengthy one of good management practices. To ensure that managers learn best—or at least better—practices, classes, courses, and workshops abound and even degrees and certificates in nonprofit management can be pursued.

In Milwaukee, foundations and corporations believe so strongly in good management, that they fund “overhead” and administrative or governance projects.  With significant, long-term investments in building the capacity of hundreds of organizations, it is disheartening to read in the morning paper about a local charity not fulfilling its mission, or that a venerable institution is forced into “massive restructuring”, or that our largest arts organization is in a financial crisis – again.

Now for the most part, these three recent local examples are organizations with budgets much greater than the 776 organizations that applied for funding through our small grants program, yet, obviously size does not matter when it comes to management challenges.

Strong leadership with an eye on the fiscal bottom line, as well as a finger on the pulse of mission achievement is vital, for EVERY nonprofit—big or small. Perhaps the need for a nonprofit management fund is just as critical for large organizations as it is for small emerging groups. We’ve always known that management and governance challenges are on every executive’s to do list, but the capacity to attract resources to address them is greater at the top than at the bottom of the nonprofit food chain.

So, why do we still read about groups on the brink.

Why haven’t Boards fulfilled those governance responsibilities including providing vision and resources? Why does an executive let a financial shortfall rise to the level of a fiscal precipice?

Whatever the answers, nonprofits in Milwaukee have once again demonstrated the need for serious investments in infrastructure, not just programs.


What advice do you have for the Fund in the future?





3 comments | Add a New Comment
1. Kathy Gale | April 15, 2014 at 05:14 PM EDT

Your observations are quite interesting. As the ED of a small nonprofit, I incorrectly assume that the larger nonprofits have it all figured out. How could grow to be so large if they didn't have a formula for success that allows them to expand?

Yet, the reality is that there are well-managed nonprofits of every size, as well as nonprofits of every size with CEOs that are hoping to hide the bad news from a board until they figure out the solution. The question in all cases is \Where is the Board?\ The committed board not only approves the financial statements, they question the logic behind the numbers and ask the uncomfortable questions. As a wise management consultant once said \If you fix the board, you fix the nonprofit.\

2. Jim Marks | April 16, 2014 at 11:44 AM EDT

Very thought provoking. I guess if you're bigger, you can always become smaller. But if you're small, there's much less margin for error. Which is why I think the Nonprofit Management Fund focus on providing management support to small nonprofits is more critical to their survival.

3. Karen Higgins | April 23, 2014 at 04:20 PM EDT

I think a nonprofit has to work diligently to strengthen all pieces of the puzzle: its mission/focus in the community which takes into consideration the people served; the leadership overseeing the day to day work of the organization; and the governing body that oversees/directs overall focus of the organization. All need clarity of purpose and tools/facilitation that keep them sharp and responsive to ever changing issues and funding priorities. They also need affirmation and \\\\\\\food\\\\\\\ for their journey. I see the Fund helping feed all parts of the equation that go into being a viable responsive nonprofit in the community. I am hopeful the Fund can take this into consideration as it develops its next chapter of evolution in the Milwaukee community. Be open and creative to what this can mean and stay committed to providing resources particularly to the smaller, grassroots nonprofits that need help finding their way.

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