What Your “Umbrella” Organization Can Do For You

dont-give-up-the-ship-croppedBy Carol Benson, Ph.D.

Many small nonprofit leaders and volunteers grow discouraged as they battle to keep their organization afloat, amid numerous challenges. Is this you?

Although we all know the pitfalls, we expect them to happen to other organizations, but not ours — and it’s frustrating to encounter the roadblocks ourselves. We want to avoid the roadblocks by knowing the “what” and the “why,” but often that isn’t enough. The struggles happen anyway. Maybe your Board is shrinking, due to some longtime stalwarts retiring at the same time. Or the leaders of your corps of volunteers, the ones who shoulder the most of the work, step away for whatever reasons, and there’s no one to step into their shoes, and suddenly the volunteer roster evaporates! Or some steady funders want to support new organizations, instead of the terrific ones like yours that have been returning for funding for several years. There’s nothing wrong with that, it sounds like good policy – but your organization will sorely miss that support!

It can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you! It may help to remind yourself that these are challenges that are part of the natural “growth” cycle of an organization and are very common, almost inevitable. But now it’s time to take action, and you need to know what to do first!

Start by reaching out. Your nonprofit may be part of an “umbrella” organization that has a lot to offer. What can that type of organization do for you?

1. They’ve got experience and are “good listeners.”
2. They might have contacts you can use.
3. They are usually building their own “toolbox” to help organizations just like yours.

Now, to ditch the hypothetical and talk turkey! I am an Executive Director of an “umbrella” organization, a state heritage area, the Four Rivers Heritage Area of Annapolis and Southern Anne Arundel County, Maryland. We are part of a system of state-certified heritage areas that function as “umbrella” organizations to heritage museums, historic sites and parks, and help knit them together to become a greater and stronger network. This list does describe what I, and my fellow heritage area directors, can do to help. We enjoy the calls! We enjoy the problem solving.

I have lots of experience, but of course it’s not comprehensive. I may not have encountered exactly your situation, but I will start by “thinking out loud” with you, because the conversation will tease out salient details that we can start with. I have contacts; they might or might not be the ones you need, but not only will I try to find a good one, I’ll call you if something else comes to mind, which is frequently what does happen. Finally, I am building a “toolbox,” and so is everyone else I work with. You might be surprised at what’s in there, or you might feel better knowing that overall resources are limited, and there’s no great answer that you missed, but there might be a resource or an approach you might not have known or thought about.

Here’s the best thing about “umbrella” organizations: we convene meetings that bring you together with your peers. These are wonderful sessions where generous people are sharing with one another their best practices, resources, and ideas, and things they’ve tried that have worked, and others that haven’t. That’s the “secret sauce.” We’ve got it. So don’t be afraid to go to your “umbrella” organization, or give them a call, and start the conversation!

Image: Flag from Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis. Credit: Carol Benson

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