Of Pioneers and Settlers: The two stages of nonprofit board growth and development

In the last six months, two current clients and one prospective client have talked with me about the growing pains they are experiencing within their organizations. All three nonprofits have been around for a while. Interestingly, one has had a full-time Executive Director for many years, the second has recently made one of its founding board members its first-ever Executive Director, and the third is still an all-volunteer organization.

As I learned more about the challenges that each organization faces, I realized that all three are at a similar and critical inflection point in their growth and evolution. It’s a familiar situation that I like to describe in terms of “Pioneers and Settlers”.

Pioneers

It takes a visionary to start a new nonprofit organization. People who head down this path are naturally very entrepreneurially-minded. They eschew the status quo because they see a better place and have a deep desire to get there. They’ll cross mountains, forge rivers, and hack through undergrowth to get to where they are going. They have a high tolerance for uncertainty and believe strongly that, while the road ahead is fraught with danger and there may be casualties, the opportunity more than exceeds the risk and effort.

PioneersLike the pioneers they are, these social sector leaders don’t need maps and a compass to find their way. They are rough-and-tumble people who have a clear vision of a better future and can handle the uncertainty and lack of structure of a new organization’s early days. They move forward steadily,  keeping notes along the way so that others may one day follow. Nonprofit pioneers don’t need committee agendas – they are perfectly comfortable playing it by ear. They don’t need a dedicated meeting space – there’s always a coffee shop or living room available somewhere.

Similarly, they head out on their journeys without a need for committees, minute-keeping, succession planning, and formalized processes. These things will all be developed in time. And that’s a very good thing because, without these things, the settlers would never consider joining in the journey.

Settlers

Settlers are very different from pioneers. Much more risk-averse, they can usually only be convinced to join an effort that has some obvious stability and security.

SettlersDuring the late 1800’s, early settlers who joined American wagon trains for the long ride west needed assurance that the wilds had been tamed, somewhat, by the pioneers. They needed to see proof that the pioneers’ brave new world really exists, and hear stories about what the journey will be like. They needed to know that someone had gone there before them, and that everything would be okay. They needed to know that preparations have been made for them at the other end. And they needed to know that a suitable place has been found and that land had been cleared upon which they could help build a town, erect some fences, and create a better life for themselves and their families.

In the same way, settler board members have fears – about wasted time and effort, damage to their ego or reputation, and other things – that keep them from venturing too far from well-beaten paths. They want to hear from past and present board members about how well the organization runs, and the competence of its board and staff leadership. They want to know that there are policies, procedures, and processes that help ensure that things will run smoothly. They want to see a clear path to success, and know that others have travelled this way before them. Only then will they load up the wagons and venture out into a new organization.

Perhaps you know an organization or two at each of these stages. Neither is good or bad – they’re just very different. The principal difference between pioneer- and settler-type organizations is that the structure and systems in place at each dictate the type of board member it can successfully recruit and engage.

If you’re involved with a pioneer organization, know that you need to develop some process and structure before the settlers – the long term board-builders – will follow. Only then will you be able to move the organization into the next stage of its growth.

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