One Size DOES NOT Fit All

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“There are no short-cuts to anyplace worth going”
          - Beverly Sills

Imagine you were gifted a map that charted your organization’s past, present and future growth – with the present as a big green dot on the map indicating: “you are here”. 

The Nonprofit Lifecycles approach created by Susan Kenny Stevens is a framework that provides just that. A lifecycle is a series of developmental stages – organizations live through stages, just as humans do.  In each stage there are common and predictable strengths and growing pains that are part of normal development. 

A child puts weekly allowance money in a piggy bank to save for a bike; a teenager gets a part-time job to have extra spending money; a new parent buys a house and needs the right mortgage. It would be strange to see a child saving for a mortgage, or the teenager putting all their earned  money into an RRSP for retirement . It’s true for organizations too – sometimes we do strange things because we try to mimic other organizations, but it’s not the right tactic for us based on our lifecycle stage.

There are seven stages of Stevens' lifecycle framework: idea, start-up, growth, maturity, decline, turnaround, and terminal. No one stage is better than another – they all come with their own highs and lows. You may have loved being a teenager, but aren’t you glad you’re an adult now? 

Organizations do not necessarily go through the stages sequentially, nor do they go through all stages. You could skip or stay in any stage at any time. This model is not deterministic; it does not tell you how you should grow. It simply, yet powerfully, provides organizations with a framework to diagnose current capacity and recognizes one size does not fit all. 

Once you find your “you are here” sticker on the map, clarity emerges. It becomes clear why certain challenges exist in your organization. Then you are able to choose why, how and when to address your growing pains.  

This spring I had the pleasure to work with the magnetic, funny and oh-so-wise, Susan Kenny Stevens, author of Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage Based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity. The crucial lesson I learned from her is how to diagnose your organization with humility. To resist judging whether this is good or bad. It’s neither - it just is. Once we get over the fear that failure or poor management has caused our challenges, we can normalize them and get on with figuring out how to address them. Or choose to accept them and just live through it. 

This model, like Susan, brings a sense of humor to our growing pains. It’s easier to laugh at yourself when you know you’re not the only one. It’s also easier to ignore the things that your organization is not ready for, and stop trying to be bigger and better than is realistic. Instead create your own path that works for you.   


Want to learn more about your lifecycles stage? Vantage Point has learning opportunities and resources for you. 

About the Author

Annastasia Forst contributed her creative and analytic work ethic (not an oxymoron) to Vantage Point as a past Director of Learning. She is passionate about working with many talented knowledge philanthropists to develop, deliver and evaluate Vantage Point’s board and executive leadership...
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