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Rites of Passage

Graduates Lifting MortarboardsThe Front Range Source family has enjoyed a number of graduations (or ‘promotions’ as they are sometimes called) this week.  Leslie and I have looked at each other and said of one child or another, “Phew, at least we got them through THAT stage!”   And yet we feel the typical bittersweet pangs that come with moving from one phase of life to another.

Such crossroads in our lives present new opportunities, but they also force us to reconsider our roles and reexamine who we are in the lives of those who depend upon us.  Our children need us, perhaps more than ever, but in different ways.  As they grow, so too must our ability to support them.

Haven’t we all faced the same exciting, but nerve-wracking moments as nonprofit leaders? The nonprofit’s life and our own professional and personal development are closely interwoven.

Sonoma-based fundraising consultant Dr. B.J. Bischoff compares the oft-used framework of the “nonprofit life cycle” to human development, from infancy through toddlerhood, adolescence and eventually maturity (one hopes!).

There are many versions of the nonprofit life cycle and it’s important to assess where you think your organization is now and set some goals for moving into the next healthy phase.

You can use the human life cycle presented by Dr. Bischoff above, or you can refer to Fieldstone Alliance’s popular Five Life Stages of Nonprofit Organizations.  They even have a survey you can take to determine your agency’s life stage.

But, here’s the main point: take some time to evaluate your own role in the context of the organization’s life cycle.  Is your current leadership style suited to the needs of the organization?  If your organization is in an adolescent stage, are you establishing enough boundaries and figuring out how to resolve conflict constructively?  If you’re dealing with a toddler, are you putting in place basic systems to keep the organization focused and on track?

How you lead today might need to be very different than it was a year ago or will need to be a year from now.

Don’t trust to the fates to make you the right leader at the right time.  Take some of these action steps:

  • Think long and hard about what your role should be in the context of your organization’s life cycle and set some specific leadership goals for yourself.
  • Invite some feedback from your colleagues regarding what they think is needed of you right now.
  • Consider some leadership training and/or professional coaching to help you adapt and thrive.
  • Create your own web of guidance and support.  Join a professional group, network with peers, find a mentor.

And, of course, take care of yourself.  It’s easier to lead from a place of calm than a place of exhaustion and worry.  Growth and transition are hard.  Check in with yourself regularly and make adjustments as needed.

Take time to celebrate the rites of passage for yourself and for your organization.  Pause and look around and say, “look how far we’ve come together.”


  1. Jessica Kooiman says:

    Thank you Ann and Leslie, this is such a good reminder!

    • AnnGoldman says:

      Thank YOU, Jessica. As the Executive Director and Curator at your organization, you’ve got a lot of roles to play!

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