published in Articulate Magazine, Fall 2018
Throughout my career of writing, performing, directing, and producing, I’ve
always been thrilled by improvisation. No more so than when a Big Idea
materializes in my imagination, seemingly arriving from nowhere. As artists
will try to describe, it’s a time-stands-still moment. Palpable: it feels like one
can actually see, hear, and taste the finished product. What happens next is
like a dog troubling a bone, gnawing on it, twisting and flipping it this way
and that, crunching away trying to get to the heart, the essence of the idea. If
the initial euphoria sustains, then comes the look-in-the-mirror challenge:
“Are you—yes I’m talking to you, Bozo—are you ready to huff and puff to
make this happen?” That’s always the big question. Momentary euphoria? Or
Creative process is based on invention and improvisation in the face of
thousands of big and small design questions and the reactions to decisions
one makes in answer to those challenges. For those with the aptitude and the
right temperament, this delicious travail is both the fun and exasperation of it!
Make too many ill-advised choices, and one finds themselves in an
imagination maze, face-to-face with dead ends, frustratingly backtracking,
still hoping to retrace the through-line from that first flash of inspiration.
Making a story, a painting, a song, a theatre piece…they all start with a big
idea and are fuelled by the experience and talent of the artist(s) to arrive at,
hopefully, a successful destination.
It follows, then, that making a successful nonprofit organization also stems
from a Big Idea i.e. to fill a perceived gap, to deliver a service, to provide
something useful to those who will experience and value the benefit. Over the
last ten years, I’ve been asked to make keynote presentations at conferences
across the country to tell the story of how our small, rural arts council grew
from $50,000 in revenues with 35 Members to over $500,000 and 700
Members. As the change agent and leader of that journey, my process was, as
could be expected from a practicing artist, instinctive. I grew very adept at
describing the skeleton of the story: “We did this, then this happened, and
then we did this.”
However, there’s a lot of mystery involved with creative process. Some of it
can be explained, much of it can be taught, but the doing is still an intuitive
and mysterious process. Ask the artist, “Why did you do this?” and they’re
likely to answer, “I don’t really know…it felt right.”
Looking back over 14 years of Kicking Horse Culture’s journey, I
have come to realize there is a difference between an artist pursuing a Big
Idea and a nonprofit organization pursuing a Big Idea. Paying respect to the
40 year long practice of Susan Kenny Steven’s “Lifecycle Stages for
Nonprofits”, I have come to appreciate that the process of a nonprofit
organizations’ journey pursuing the Big Idea can be characterized and
When I first dove in to Susan Kenny Steven’s lifecycle stages model back in
2013, I felt its intrinsic truth. This research foretold the change process of our
nonprofit from a “declining” reality in 2003, through the “turnaround” stage,
into the “growth” stage, and after ten years of hard, exciting work, into the
early throes of “maturity.” I had lived this journey and here were tools that
accurately depicted what we had just lived through! Somewhat unnerving,
but also somehow very comforting. The process was demystified. We were
At it’s essence, Lifecycle Stages model confirms that the nonprofit’s Mission
is achieved by the delivery of it’s Programs. How effective the society is at
delivering those Programs is grounded on the foundational capacity of the
nonprofit’s ability—or capacity—in Governance, Management, Financial
Resources, and Administrative Systems. The model takes one through the
typical stages of the life of an organization from a Big Idea, to Start Up,
through Growth, to Maturity, and possibly to Decline and then to either
Turnaround or Terminal.
Along the way, the model details the usual characteristics found in the
programs, governance, management, financial, and admin resources of a
typical nonprofit in each of those life stages.
In the planning and coaching work I do now with nonprofits, I ask all of the
people around the visioning table (board, staff, stakeholders, champions) to
first review and select the characteristics in programs, governance,
management, financial, and admin systems that they—from their personal
interaction with the organization—think best determine the nonprofit’s
current reality. Given their varying roles in the organization, people around
the table will usually differ in their perspective. Through the ensuing
discussion, however, the group comes to consensus and confirms an accurate
diagnosis of the current realities.
Google Maps asks you to insert a starting point before you can get directions
to your destination. But, all too often boards feel they must do strategic
planning so they can give direction to staff on what to do to achieve the
mission in the next 5 or 10 years. But, one must learn to crawl, before
toddling, before walking, before running. Visioning by those gathered around
the planning table must be informed by current organizational realities.
Implementing Lifecycle stages practice gives those at the planning table the
diagnostic starting point and the detailed direction on how to build
foundational capacity in governance, management, financial resources, and
admin systems, and, therefore, the strength to deliver the programs which
will achieve the mission.
When asked for feedback on Kicking Horse Culture's organizational reality, the Town of Golden’s Chief Administrative Officer told us, “Continue to be stable,
continue to be dependable, continue to be indispensable.” Susan Kenny
Steven’s Lifecycle stages for nonprofit research is one of the many resources I utilize in my coaching practice with nonprofit boards and staff to build that capacity for dependability.
Copyright © 2018 Bill Usher - All Rights Reserved.