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  • Dr. Ken Thiessen

Why You Need More Than Just Passion In Your Nonprofit


One of the biggest challenges for social service agencies and nonprofits is rooted in the founding DNA of the organization. Most of these organizations were started by an individual who was passionate about a cause, an injustice, or a community need. That passion drove them to do something - to make a difference. They shared that passion with others and the ember began to glow brighter, creating other embers, eventually breaking into a full blown fire of enthusiasm and action. And like the saying goes, “The rest is history.”

What started off as one person’s passion quickly spread to other passionate people and before long a board was formed. The necessary legal documentation was filed with the appropriate government agency and a new nonprofit organization was birthed. Without that passion, most social service agencies and nonprofits would remain an idea inside someone’s cranium. It’s passion that moves the idea from the cranium to the terrarium. But as critical as it is, passion alone isn’t enough to start, develop, maintain, and sustain a social service agency let alone grow it! Just like soil by itself isn’t enough to grow a healthy plant, passion isn’t enough to grow an organization like Kenaston House. It’s an indispensable piece of the puzzle but it requires other equally indispensable pieces to turn the puzzle into a masterpiece - a true work of art.

Passion Is Only One of the DNA Molecules


Nonprofit organizations have passion as the organizational base DNA molecule, but what brings the organization into existence eventually becomes cancerous unless four other foundational organizational molecules are added to the DNA structure. Those molecules are People, Strategy, Execution and Cash/Funding. These important molecules serve as antigens to the cancerous properties of passion when passion is the lone or primary DNA molecule. When combined with the other foundational DNA molecules, passion becomes a directive force propelling the organization forward in a healthy, aligned, and synergetic fashion resulting in transformed lives, transformed communities, and a better world!

People is about harmony in the organization’s culture where staff and volunteers genuinely enjoy working together as a team. In order for that to happen it’s essential to employ a robust and disciplined recruiting, hiring, and retention process for staff and volunteers. When those processes are in place and regularly implemented, the calibre and capacity of the team to make a real difference increases exponentially.

Strategy is about gaining clarity and alignment around the long term vision, purpose, and direction of the organization. Strategic thinking helps the executive leadership team focus on things like the 15-20 year vision, core values, core purpose, core competencies, and identifying the organization’s core beneficiary. This is absolutely critical because there is a direct correlation between strategic clarity, developing a strong, aligned staff team, and growing a donor/funding base.

Execution is about getting things done efficiently and effectively. Execution planning enables the organization to convert strategy into action by articulating organizational, departmental, and individual priorities and metrics each shaped by the strategic thinking component of the process. Being able to deliver measurable outcomes creates a level of trust and confidence with donors and funding agencies alike which serves to enhance the organization’s ability to deliver on its promise and effect lasting change.

Cash/Funding is about having sufficient cash flow and cash reserves so that the organization can support existing programs and services and has options to develop and deliver new programs and services. For most social service agencies this is another critical piece because most struggle for survival, living month-to-month, and in some cases day-to-day.

Can you build a sustainable, growing nonprofit organization on passion alone? You can try, but here’s what usually happens to derail the long term viability and impact of the organization. You’ll hire people who are passionate about the cause but don’t necessary possess the right skill set for the job or consistently live out your core values. Strategic thinking won’t be woven into everything you do as as organization. You won’t have a disciplined execution planning process in place. Instead you’ll probably be more reactive than strategic and proactive. You won’t have clearly outlined goals with measurable outcomes that you hold yourself as an organization accountable to. Eventually that will lead to a funding a crunch as donors slowly drift away and you have no plan to develop, broaden and nurture your donor base.

Decision Time

Can you start a non-profit organization predominantly on passion? Sure. But growth will be sporadic and reactive at best. Employee turnover will be a significant issue. Measurable outcomes will be circumstantial and anecdotal and alignment will be a dream not a reality. That’s the less than good news. But there is good news! It DOESN’T have to be that way. There are nonprofit leaders who wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night terrified that the cause they’re fully vested in might unravel and the train might derail. Their sleepless nights and the accompanying angst motivates them to do something. The same passion that drove them to involvement with the organization now motivates them to reach outside themselves, get help, and chart a new and different future. They are few and far between, but they do exist!

So, it’s decision time. I’m assuming you are involved in one form or another with a nonprofit or social service organization. It may be faith based or community based - that matters little. The dynamics, experiences and patterns are the same. You owe it to the people you serve, your donors and funding agencies to operate your organization on more than just passion, a whim, and a prayer.


But it means you have to step out of your comfort zone and risk doing something you may never have done before. It may involve admitting that you don’t have a clue about how best to engage a strategic thinking/execution planning process or what it might entail. It may involve acknowledging that the very thought of stepping out is terrifying. That you’re terrified is not the biggest issue. The biggest issue is whether or not you’re going to allow your fear to control you and dictate your behaviour. Or are you going to step into your fear and do what deep down you know you need to do, and do it no matter how terrified you are?If you’re willing to risk stepping out of your comfort zone, ask someone else for help in engaging the unknown of the process, then there’s hope for you and your organization. Face your fears, walk into the unknown and keep reading. You’re not alone. Others have gone before you and they’ve lived to experience the thrill of the journey and in the process they’ve made a huge difference in the lives of the people they were privileged to serve. Like you they cared about their cause but they realized that passion alone wasn’t enough. They also came to realize they didn’t have to abandon their passion. In many respects, their passion came more alive than they ever dreamed possible. Come along for the ride! It will be worth it. I didn’t say it wouldn’t be scary, and I didn’t say it would be easy, but I do guarantee it will be worth it!

#nonprofits #executionplanning #strategicthinking

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