Embarking on the growth journey, slowly but surely

It’s spring time at last, a time of growth and renewal. The flowers are blossoming and the sun is starting to shine, bringing in glimmers of hope.

A word that seems to be coming up more and more in my conversations with the not-for-profits I am working with is GROWTH. What does growth really mean for charities, especially as their goal in the earnest is to eventually get themselves out of business? Should we really be celebrating growth, as that often means that the needs and the problems that we have been trying so hard to solve, are growing too? Is there a risk that if we grew too much, we might struggle to sustain ourselves and our committed teams?

At a recent workshop that I facilitated with a group of passionate charity folks, we tried to unpack the idea of growth in all its complexity and dimensions. We asked ourselves, why do we want to grow – what legacy did we want to have? Might it distract us from our core focus or strengthen us? How do we deepen our impact while also making a difference on the wider scale? Who should be our co-passengers on this growth journey? Should we prioritise breadth or depth? How do we decide what is ‘good growth’ and ‘growth just for the sake of it’? How do we balance the imperatives of ‘level of need’ versus ‘value of money’ or the service-geography equation? And lots more.

It was a fascinating and stimulating discussion and as I sat on my train back, I felt thoughtful.

As charities working on system change, sometimes growth is not a choice, it is a necessity.

To have any dent on the embedded systems and frameworks around us, we need to have:

a voice strong enough to stir the unjust systems and powers we are up against

real evidence from people of lived experience to help move hearts and minds

committed and passionate teams helping to drive change at scale

strong partnerships that help us amplify our voices to advocate for change

ways to share what we know with others, so we all can get there quick

a plug into wider communities of practice and be ‘in the know’

demonstrable impact, make real change and sustain funding momentum.

So growth is not really an option for us, it’s something we have to do.

The challenge is how to ensure we grow by design and not by default.

Having worked with charities and not-for-profit organisations over the years, I have often seen the growth paradox play out. I have observed the endless quest for growth and scale inadvertently diluting impact and focus in large organisations. I have also seen the desire to stay small and focused challenging the sustainability equation in grassroots organisations. So what attributes do charities who are most successful in ‘growing strategically’ have? Are there some visible commonalities and patterns? In my experience, more often than not, such organisations tend to be:

  • Dynamic not static
    • Strategies and growth frameworks are reviewed and updated regularly, and not left on the shelf or on the mantle for display.
  • Context-relevant
    • Often strategies are set in a context and a baseline that has moved on since the documents were written. Progressive charities sensecheck their strategy and its relevance to the context they are in now and the changes happening around them, and align their growth ambition accordingly.
  • Agile and responsive
    • Organisations that are rigid in the way they operate, or follow precedence without questioning the norms may find it harder to change, adapt and grow. Being agile means being able to adapt with the times and stepping out of the auto-pilot mode.
  • Consensus-driven
    • Ensuring alignment between strategies, boards and team perspectives helps to ensure there is strategic consensus in the future direction and growth trajectory an organisation is expecting to take.
  • Reflective and proactive
    • Having the ability and space to be able to step back and reflect objectively on the barriers to growth and impact, is crucial for charities to be in the driving seat and be proactive in achieving their goals.
  • Evidence and impact-focused
    • In all the busy-ness of what needs doing, charities can sometimes miss the evidence and impact focus. A focus to really test and understand what is working or not working and why and how we communicate the impact story. This can be a crucial underpinning of effective programmes and policy advocacy efforts to drive lasting change.

While there is no magic bullet of how to develop and deliver successful not-for-profit strategy, the above factors potentially provide a useful enabling framework. Perhaps a starter for ten that may help organisations navigate a more balanced growth imperative, while making a lasting difference in their communities.


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