When we gather with colleagues, clients, friends, and our community, we often tell and re-tell the origin story of The Ostara Group. Rebecca Zanatta and I connected during our time in the Leadership Tomorrow program. As we reflected on the issues that were shaping the Puget Sound region, we were inspired to put our newly honed leadership skills to use. We formed a collective of consultants dedicated to building fundraising skills, organizational capacity, and effective leadership among the nonprofit sector. The longer version of that story includes the highs and lows and the important lessons we learned along the way from you—our community of nonprofit colleagues.
The year was 2009 and our region and country were grappling with the painful aftermath of the Great Recession. Washington State’s unemployment rate was hovering above 10 percent. National charitable giving had dropped two years in a row for the first time since tracking began. Yet, along with you and the Northwest nonprofit community, we persisted.
The Puget Sound region was one of the few areas that vaulted out of the recession into a historic economic boom. During the past decade, Seattle added more than 100,000 people in 84 square miles. Tech giants rose and so did the cost of living and housing instability. In the middle of our region’s deepening economic and social inequality, we have walked alongside our nonprofit clients as they drove incredible transformation in our communities.
Our team recently reflected on what we have learned in the past decade of serving nonprofits. Here’s our top ten lessons list. Hopefully, you will find some wisdom in here to share with your own organization, no matter where you are in your organizational journey.
- There is no one solution or approach that works best for all nonprofits. Each organization and the people who power it are unique and need different things. By adapting solutions to your unique strengths and opportunities, nonprofits can achieve innovative and lasting outcomes.
- Every crisis presents an opportunity. There is always an opportunity to uncover that may lift your organization out of harm’s way and lead to a transformation. If you lose a leader, whether it’s development staff, executive director, or Board member, it’s a good time to reevaluate where you are and where you need to be. New leaders can help uncover previously unconsidered pathways to success.
- Funders can make lasting change by collaborating with nonprofits. In the past decade, funders have made great strides in reflecting the voices of community organizations in their funding approaches. They can continue to seek out organizations closest to the work and limit reporting requirements. Nonprofits are witnessing the most urgent challenges and solutions in our community and have more to share with funders in the next decade.
- Organizations are ecosystems. To become a thriving fundraising organization, functions and people can't be isolated. The more nonprofits connect all corners of your organization so everyone knows what everyone else is doing, there will be greater ability and desire to contribute to the greater mission beyond single roles or departments.
- Everyone is a leader, leading all the time. Strong organizations foster opportunities for everyone to lead in their own way, regardless of their title, age, and experience.
- When nonprofits work together, everyone succeeds. Don't be afraid to talk to your peer organizations to learn what they’re doing. Nonprofits can choose to work together towards a greater good, instead of competing or acting with a scarcity mindset. When the University District Food Bank wanted to add job training in their new facility, they collaborated with Street Bean Coffee to include a café and coffee shop. This created an opportunity for collaborative donor investment, a new opportunity for people served by the food bank, and a pathway to work for those participating in Street Bean’s barista training.
- It’s necessary to serve communities with an intersectional and comprehensive approach. Whether it’s a community services hub based at a food bank or job training pathway paired with housing, the emerging visions of organizations are underscoring that people and their needs are complex. Siloed and singular services will continue to disappear.
- The size of an organization doesn't always correlate with functionality. We have seen big organizations with deep dysfunction and small organizations that are highly efficient, and vice versa. No matter the size, functional organizations have workplans and budgets that are collaborative and based in the reality of need and prospect pools, people who can speak consistently about the mission, and Board and staff make decisions together.
- Nonprofits that invite the communities they serve into leadership, create greater impact. Communities hold the tremendous leadership, creativity, and resilience needed to develop innovative approaches and solutions. Nonprofits that recognize this benefit from greater mission alignment, less overlap or wasted effort, and increased community ownership of the work.
- Humor is necessary. The work of the nonprofit sector is emotionally-taxing, but humor is an antidote. Find joy and laughter together as a team to sustain and nourish your colleagues and the communities you serve.
You’re doing the important, meaningful work every day that adds up to years and decades of impact in our region and beyond. We’re humbled to be your partner. When we celebrate 20 years of Ostara in 2029, we hope that the lessons from our community in the next decade point to a thriving region for everyone. We won’t be resting on our laurels—let’s get back to work!
But before you do, I hope you'll join us for Ostara's 10th Anniversary Party. On October 10th, we're inviting all our current and past clients, staff, community members, and partners to take a break from the hard work of nonprofit leadership, meet others in our field, and celebrate our work together with food, beer, music, and cupcakes. See all the details and RSVP on Eventbrite or Facebook; we can't wait to see you there!