A “Cocoon” Movement for the Nonprofit Sector

Can We “Brimley” Longer-Serving Nonprofits?

I was recently invited to attend the Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling held in New York City and thought the conference was a great experience.  I actually was most in awe of the collection of people attending.  I regard them so highly that I think on several occasions someone helped me remove my jaw from the floor and assisted me in grabbing my composure.

In any sense, I noticed that the conference targeted several themes, including innovation, rethinking investment, and of course, scaling.  Many times I heard different uses or versions of the word “new”.  Often it was cast as a need for new directions in both philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.  Sometimes it was cast as a plea to get rid of “the old and replace it with the new”.  What I did not hear much of, but think it is important to consider, is the possibility of reconfiguring or even “re-propelling” organizations that have much longer histories.  As you may know from reading my previous posts, I often draw comparisons between the nonprofit sector and popular culture.  As I reflected on the SIE Scaling Conference, the movie Cocoon came to my mind.  I promise I won’t reference Steve Guttenberg.

If you don’t know or remember the movie, Cocoon is a movie about a swimming pool that houses the cocoons of aliens.  Three older men start swimming in the pool and begin to obtain renewed energy, causing the older gentleman to feel much stronger.  In thinking about this plot and some of the phraseology I heard at the conference, I wondered if it is possible to rethink our language and talk about how we can renew older organizations that some have labeled as dead or have forgotten about in the rush to recognize and highlight newer efforts.

In some types of scaling thought, there is a focus on taking a successful and relatively new effort and moving it forward significantly to touch more people and have greater impact.  Of course, this is a great idea and certainly not worth disputing.  Actually I enthusiastically support this effort.  The challenge to this is that common thoughts on scaling may only be applicable to a small percentage of nonprofits.  In looking at some statistics from the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there are just over 340,000 nonprofit organizations.  The dates when those organizations were created are as follows:

  • 1969 or earlier             44,151
  • 1970 - 1979                 37,856
  • 1980 - 1989                 58,164
  • 1990 - 1994                 40,971
  • 1995 - 1999                 54,571
  • 2000 - 2005                 81,197
  • 2005 - Present             25,436

What you see is an explosion of nonprofit organizations created during the first half of the 2000s, far more than any other five year time frame since 1970, when these statistics began to be compiled.  If we think about the nonprofit lifecycle as a framework which outlines where organizations may fall, organizations that are beyond the idea/start-up phase and are entering the growth phase are usually around 5-8 years old.  So, an organization started in 2000, if still around, may have been entering the growth phase around 2006. I am sure the recent economic challenges may have slowed down or altered the movements on the lifecycle arc somewhat, but still many of these organizations are entering or are in the growth phase of their development, which might be the reason behind the growth of discussion seen at the SIE Conference and the increased need for data to help funders sort through the large number of organizations entering this stage.

The challenge to this trend is that the number of groups that were created over the last ten years represent just a third of the nonprofit organizations in the United States, according to the NCCS statistics.  That means that many of the organizations that have left the “growth” phase and are in the “maintain” phase of the nonprofit lifecycle are often being missed in the current dialogue.  Generally speaking, the “maintain” phase is where an organization has moved beyond significant growth and is delivering the programs that the growth phase has developed.  These organizations represent a majority of the nonprofits outlined in the NCCS statistics, yet there is very little mining of the important work of these organizations.  If you look under the hood of these groups, you see some of the same innovations that you might see in an early stage nonprofit.  Having a historical look at these organizations may bring out some great “nuggets” for the sector while also informing earlier stage nonprofits on important lessons.  But isn’t this always the challenge of the young versus old?  The old want to show the young the ropes while the younger just want to barrel ahead.  Often times you hear a formerly younger person say, “I wish I had listened”.  It occurs to me that many in the sector might be saying this too.

The suggestion is that if many of these older organizations are mined correctly, strategically placed resources could give some of these organizations a “Brimley” moment, as seen in Cocoon where Wilford Brimley is reinvigorated through the cocoon-filled pool.  (Note:  Selfish hope that we can make “Brimley” a verb that is used in the sector, therefore causing us to create t-shirts with Wilford Brimley on the front saying “I’ve Been Brimley’d”!).  Working with some of these organizations and mining out their still innovative best practices and injecting resources to amp these efforts could be beneficial in many ways.  I am sure there are instances of this happening, but due to where most of our organizations fall in the nonprofit lifecycle, the emphasis in the sector is certainly skewed toward newer organizations, with philanthropy often driving this movement.

Now, I remember later in the movie, the cocoons were drained of their resources once others started diving into the pool.  The cocoons nearly died. I understand that not all mid-to later stage nonprofits could be Brimley’d.  In alignment with the scaling movement, a proven, evidence-based approach is still needed to gage which groups to work with, as too many in the pool will certainly drain the resources.  My hope is that the movement to incorporate thoughts on how to include mid-to-later stage groups in this current exciting and much-needed dialogue will be continued from the SIE Scaling Conference.  I fear if we don’t include these groups that both an important conversation and real opportunity will be lost.

Read more stories by John Brothers.

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  • BY Don Crocker

    ON June 28, 2010 05:23 AM

    ...and there are many “maintaining” nonprofit organizations ripe for being Brimley’d.  Great point John, that we may be missing some important opportunities here.  Also, that an exclusive focus on the “new” will miss the opportunity to maximize wisdom, experience, and substantial resources already in place.

    It is further true that scaling new small efforts can be challenging and thereare opportunities for scaling through renewing, re-energizing existing efforts.  We know that there are nonprofits and nonprofit leaders who have become cynical and “calcified” over the years, but it is remarkable how many of our longer-term nonprofit leaders maintain enthusiasm, energy, and excitment in their work, despite the challenges we all have faced over the past couple of years.

  • BY Karen L Miller

    ON June 29, 2010 01:49 PM

    Great Insights, John. I work in the Healthcare arena consulting to Pharma and Public Affairs Firms about partnerships with non-profit disease oriented associations. I’ve been inside the corporate world and on many NGO boards.

    My biggest concerns are two-fold.

    One is that there are too many start up causes that compete for the same funding and mission yet are started with a passion for the “cause” because the “Founders” feel the need to “own” that space. I see a need to consolidate, learn and succeed with “Brimleys”.

    The second concern, at the other end of the spectrum, are the monolithic Voluntary Health Organizations who have grown so big and so unwieldy (inefficient) that the mission has become a cycle of raising money to stay alive to raise money… So, at the chapter level, its a money making machine and a competitive entity, not mission focused. The very top has lost sight of their key stakeholder s(It has become the Big Funder)...just like the large corporation whose Leaders only focus on the “shareholder” to the expense of their customers

    Yet, there are examples of mature, growing organizations that manage to raise money to support their mission and not lose sight of their purpose,ever. A great example of this, is Cancer Care (a global, Manhattan based social service agency)


  • BY John Herron

    ON June 29, 2010 02:08 PM

    I am also concerned about the over emphasis on “scaling” especially when it only refers to maximum possible gross revenue or numbers served.  Some enterprises need to grow to scale by being large enough to be efficient and successful with mission and enterprise not necessarily to change the world.  There are many, many successful small businesses that don’t become or even don’t strive to become GE, IBM or GM.  I would like to see scaling defind and reaching the optimal level of efficiency with mission and enterprise.

  • William Murdock's avatar

    BY William Murdock

    ON June 30, 2010 06:04 AM

    I think one key point of Cocoon, and for this discussion in the non-profit sector, is that Brimley did not Brimley alone.  He had two other similar minded characters who joined and supported him.  I think that more established non-profits would continue to do well, especially at the local or regional level, to foster joint efforts in programming, marketing or even back-room logistics and administration to assist in scaling.  One of the key values of being established is that you have a track record (hopefully of being reliable and effective) and can find other agencies with similar characteristics.

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