Nonprofit Lifecycles: Breathing New Life into Cultural Organizations

By: SaskCulture Staff January, 2019

Cultural Areas

Cultural Industries


AR - 2019

It’s been two years since Susan Kenny presented Nonprofit Lifecycles to cultural groups in Saskatchewan.  Since then several organizations have worked with consultants to assess their organizational health and capacity as they move through stages of development: Idea, Start-up, Growth, Maturity, Decline and Turnaround and in some cases terminal. Besides helping guide an assessment, the Nonprofit Lifecycles framework can provide the direction required to breathe new life into organizations.

LifeCycles Provides Guidance to New Executive Director

Melissa Ong was very interested when she first learned about the Lifecycles concept.  It was 2016, and she had just accepted the role of executive director for the Saskatchewan Elocution and Debate Association (SEDA).  Since she had a long history with the organization — her children had been involved and she served as a volunteer debate coach, tournament organizer and a board member — she was aware the organization was in a challenging stage.  “The organization had just gone through the Annual Global Funding submission process and hosted a national championship,” she notes, amidst transitions and changes in the Executive Director position and the Board.

In 2017, Ong shared the Lifecycles concept with newly elected Board President, Wendy James. “She understood that the organization was in a transition period and there was a need for change.” James and Ong applied for the Cultural Lifecycles Capacity in Saskatchewan (CLiCS) program sponsored by SaskCulture and were accepted. Together with consultant Wayne Hellquist, SEDA’s Leadership Team took Lifecycles to the rest of the board.  Ong says there was good discussion at the board level, and as expected, "there was lots of debate. The consensus was that it was a good starting point. We had the vocabulary to work with and an opportunity to build a framework to move forward."

“Although we had some change on the Board over the past year, Lifecycles helped keep us on the same page, and enabled us to be strategic and determine where we were and where we needed to go,” she explains. “We identified that while our Programs, Management and Financial Resources were in Start-Up, our Governance was in the Turnaround stage and our Administration Systems was in Decline.” This discovery provided insight and much needed direction on next steps and priorities that led to a better office space (with co-working support) in Saskatoon, identifying the need for an Administrative Assistant in addition to our part-time Program Coordinators, working on governance issues, as well as developing more focused plans for fundraising in the future.

Beyond just helping identify operational issues, the Lifecycles process helped SEDA better understand its role. The whole philosophy is to challenge you to 'pull up' and grow your organization. “It helped us better understand the people part of our mandate,” she says. “We are more than just a program and holding tournaments, we are making a difference with speech – teaching young people about the power of words. The program was helpful in directing our thinking about roles, our mission, policies and governance.”

At this point, a framework is in place and SEDA is realistic about its progress.  “We recognize that change takes time.”  Ong notes that the Nonprofit LifeCycles book has become a valuable source of information and insight for her. “It is the go-to book and I’m not sure, as a new ED, I would have lasted without it.”

LifeCycles Creates a Legacy Document

Another new executive director, Dorothea Warren brought a wealth of previous management experience to her role at the Saskatchewan Library Association (SLA), but quickly realized the realities of running a small cultural non-profit organization also required some new ways of thinking.  She was intrigued by the stages of development outlined in the Lifecycles model, and found it very applicable to the needs of the SLA.

According to Warren, there were two factors that made the Lifecycles program a good choice.  First, she noted, the SLA, in existence for over 75 years, was at a stage in its lifespan when it was really important to reflect on, and assess, the different pillars outlined by the Lifecycles model, and secondly, the organization was in a state of transition with a new Executive Director and turnover of board membership including some long-term board members.

The SLA Lifecycles project team and the Board of Directors set to work on the organizational assessment as part of the cohorts organized by SaskCulture.  “The process brought the entire Board to the same point of understanding,” says Warren. “Learning together is so valuable.” They did a rigorous job, she notes, resulting in a very thorough assessment. Guided by consultant Dawn Martin, the SLA was able to use the assessment work to gain valuable insights and develop an Improvement Plan.

Since the board had already addressed areas of governance and policy in the past, Warren says that “they were able to spend considerable time on the administrative area of SLA,” and realized that the work required by the organization going forward required a greater commitment to internal capacity.

“There are many positive aspects to the Lifecycles model,” she notes, including the opportunity to create an Improvement Plan. “I see the Assessment and Improvement Plan as a legacy document,” she notes, “it can provide direction and be built upon over time.” The assessment is also useful as a tool to help orientate new board members. “Going into the next year, we will have six new board members,” explains Warren.  She hopes that the assessment will be helpful to build understanding that will contribute to continued progress.

The SLA’s Improvement Plan, based on work from the Lifecycles assessment, was also instrumental in the development of the organization’s new strategic plan. “It was extremely fortuitous to be able to look at this work at the same time,” explains Warren. Lifecycles proved very complementary to further strategic planning.

“In essence, Lifecycles helped lift the organization’s thinking,” adds Warren.  “It allowed for more critical analysis of the organization in a non-threatening and meaningful way.”  She noted that it was genuinely refreshing, providing everyone with a new frame of reference.