In November of 2014, the nonprofit I lead re-launched after 30 years in existence. About two months into my work there in 2012, I realized that we were due for some big changes. I was honest with the Board about that, and I'm proud of them for taking the plunge.
I knew it would be risky, and it would take a while. Here's what a while ended up looking like...
What we did: Re-launched a 30-year nonprofit with a new mission, new strategies, a new logo, and a new website
How long I thought it would take us: 10 months
How long it actually took: 2 years
How many people worked on it: 1 leader (me), 1 staff associate for some of the months, 1 contract employee for three months, 1 website designer, 9 to 12 Board members (depending on when in the 2 years we're talking about), a handful of close volunteers
When I worked on it: I get paid to work 20 hours a week. For a very long time, I was averaging more like 30 to 50 hours a week. At particularly intense times, I still do. I only have childcare set up to cover 20 hours a week, though, so any more time I work either means I ask my mom or a friend to help out extra, my husband takes a vacation day, or I work early in the morning or late at night. Early in the morning and late at night happened a lot in the first year and a half.
What was hard about it taking so long: Two things in particular: (1) For some of our Board members, it was excruciating for it to feel like we weren't doing anything visible in the community for so long. It can be so hard not to "do." (2) We used a lot of our financial reserves over that stretch. It's hard to fundraise with "we're not happy with our impact right now, so we're figuring out a new plan." A few forward-thinking funders supported our honesty and our efforts, but we still took a big hit.
What was awesome about it taking so long: We did a good job. Lo and behold, we actually created a more impactful, focused organization with buy-in and participation from the Board and the community. Yes, that kind of true sea-change in an organization takes a long time--especially with a new leader. But I can tell you, it sure is easier for all of us to make decisions with a well-defined mission and focus. It's made a huge difference day-to-day and in general.
Could we have done it faster? Yes. But I don't know if we should have. We could have used our financial reserve to outsource the outreach and community surveying that we did ourselves. That would have moved us faster. But we would've missed out on two things: 1) building relationships through that outreach, and 2) the time to let go of past perceptions of what the organization should be--especially for those who had been with the organization for a long, long time.
My biggest how-to-do-a-slow-project takeaways from re-launching the org:
1: It will always take longer than you think, so wait to set the date.
As a theatre director and producer, I can work to a deadline like nobody's business. When we set a date for a show, the show goes up. (Theatre producers make excellent project managers.)
But I also know that pretty much everything takes longer than you think it will, so it can be helpful not to set the show date too early in the process. If I had set the date for the relaunch early on, I would've added my usual 50% to the time I thought it would take, and I still would've been way short.
2: It's always a cram right at the end.
I don't know why. It just is. For the relaunch, we really needed one more month, but we didn't want it to land during the holidays--and we had a significant donor who was willing to give us an incentive gift to make it happen in November.
I think that even for projects that last several years, we should just keep our commitments and information inflow as limited as possible for that last two weeks. That way we can do the last-minute race and still get 8 hours of sleep a night.
3: Say no to other things.
This is the third installment, and it's the third time I've said this one. Here are some things I said no to in order to create space to relaunch an organization:
+ No, Board-member-I-respect, we can't do your good idea(s) right now--or actually for at least a year. We don't have the bandwidth.
+ No, we can't partner on anything new right now because we need to figure out who we are before we collaborate.
+ No, we can't pay another staff member for x amount of months because we have to shore up our reserves again.
Relaunching an organization is not for the faint of heart--whether you're staff or Board. But the rewards can be extraordinary.
If you're thinking your nonprofit or small biz could benefit from some fine-tuning or a major overhaul, the slow-and-steady way might be right for you.