THE BLOG

Starting a Nonprofit Calls for Passion and More

02/10/2015 01:38 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
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The following post is an excerpt from "Beyond Passion: from nonprofit expert to organizational leader" by Nicki Roth. Published by Saroga in October 2014.

Nonprofit leaders are overcommitted, underpaid, zealots for their causes and usually totally unprepared for the leadership demands they face. This book is the journey of one such leader, Isabel, who comes to understand that she needs to develop her (and her team's) leadership capabilities so they can have the impact they deeply desire.

After eight years as an English classroom teacher and another four as department head I felt I was missing something because too many of my students were not succeeding. So I took time out to get my masters in the latest learning theories and instructional design. I returned to the classroom to try out all my fancy new ideas and had some success, but not as much as I had hoped. I had a long held suspicion that what took place inside the classroom was only part of the equation. My studies simply confirmed my thinking. I tried to get my school to institute a variety of mentoring and outreach programs to students and their families. But it had to be on my own time and my own dime. My frustration and dissatisfaction grew. And each semester I felt I was failing these kids.

The now famous kitchen table moment occurred. I was sitting there with three of my closest colleagues and my husband, who is in banking. The four of them turned to me and basically said they were sick of my bitching and moaning and how many more years was I going to subject myself (and them!) to this misery. My friend Rachel finally said, 'You clearly know what you would rather be doing to help these kids. Why don't you just start your own organization and make it happen?' The rest of the conversation was all over the place but after awhile I had to admit that they were all correct. I needed to get out there and do what I believed was right. Okay, decision made.

It took another eight months to flesh out the idea and put together a very rudimentary organization. My husband introduced me to a few donors who offered the initial funding, my three colleagues volunteered to become the board and I recruited Sandra and Simon as my first employees. I quit my job and we turned my finished basement into our first office.

Now here is the part of the story that we never addressed directly but I believe is very important and relevant to our present situation. When we began, did we have a mission? Yes. Did we have a strategy? I think Sandra and Simon would agree with me that it was more a plan of action. Did we have a notion, let alone a path, for growth and success? Did we know how to set up record keeping or hiring practices or determine performance standards and metrics? By the time we had five paid employees we were able to get free consulting help to rough out some bare bones infrastructure. But did that mean we knew how to manage an organization? You were hired because you are subject matter experts on community organizing or fundraising or finance or teaching. Assessing you for management or leadership capacity was not a priority.

So here we are today. In spite of our limitations we have grown and graduated hundreds of students and generated a ton of interest and funding for our work. Clearly we have figured out how to do enough of the right things. But I believe that our standstill in the past 18 months is an indication of hitting a wall. Those limitations are now hurting us. We need to go back and pick up some missed stitches: a strategy, a growth plan and professional management skills.

What started around a kitchen table and was fueled by our collective commitment to serve these kids is now potentially in trouble. This is the mantra that has been running through my head: Passion is not enough. It worked to launch and sustain us for a while but today it just isn't enough. I hope our passion is always strong but we need something more for our future.