Scaling Non-Profits: Lessons from the Experts

Is your nonprofit making a difference in your community? Starting to think about national expansion? Here is some advice from five experts (bios below).
How do you attract great talent when you don’t have a big budget?
Andy Rotherham (AR): One word: mission. Whether it’s paid and full-time or part time service as a board member, a compelling mission attracts. There is no substitute and there is so much happening in the sector now that talent has a lot of choices so you have to be offering a compelling choice.
Jon Schnur (JS): Provide big leadership opportunities to superstars (with strong track records of leadership and success) earlier in their career than they can get elsewhere.
Scott Morgan (SM): Be bold! A clear, ambitious vision of the impact your organization will make is essential to inspire talented people to join you. The best way to overcome a small budget in attracting great talent is by developing a compelling vision to attract entrepreneurial people who want to use their passion and skills to change the world. Do inspiration one better: empower the great people who join your team with significant responsibilities based on their interests, strengths and your organization’s key priorities. This will enable them to make unique and powerful contributions to your work while becoming co-creators in building a great organization.
John Danner (JD): I would reframe this question. You must have a very big budget to pay people well in non-profits. You cannot expect mission to overcome people’s needs to care for their families. On top of that, non-profits don’t directly reward you for your efforts in terms of company growth and equity ownership, so they attract a different set of people, much like later-stage for-profits. People will be less risk-oriented and more willing to come to you if you already seem “established.” Ultimately, mission is the most important thing in both for-profits and nonprofits, but nonprofits will have to pay more to make up for lack of equity. This can be masked for the first few years, but when you need someone who has opened 1000 stores for a for-profit, you have to pay them approximately what they are worth. This is a fundamental challenge to all non-profits, but especially for those that don’t have efficient models where the extra resources can be directed to pay people what they are worth.
Preston Smith (PS): The other item that I would flag is that in a growing organization, your ability to DEVELOP talent is critical. Bringing in folks externally is a huge risk from a culture and efficacy standpoint, so your ability as an organization to aggressively develop your talent and also invest in your talent (i.e. place a bet on their inner talent and that they will rise to the occasion with proper support and professional development) Is critical in an organization’s ability to effectively scale with cultural stability and excellence over time.
How did you decide what to centralize & where to provide local flexibility?
JS: In a national, multi-site non-profit, centralize ONLY things that: 1) are absolute top priorities requiring consistency and that will drive key results, 2) are accompanied by investment and in-person in training, development, and best practice-sharing, as well as up-front input from leaders and educators with on-the-ground expertise; and 3) leave local leaders with plenty of room for leadership and judgment–or you won’t retain your top local leaders.
JD: My general thesis is that having your regional operators be their own mini-CEOs gives the most motivation to regions, but if you go too far on that, it’s too hard to ensure quality or insist on standard components of the model.
PS: We are in the midst of working it out–we have decided to centralize quite a bit in regards to Rocketship Network Support services. The rationale for this is that we can more effectively provide support to our schools, especially as we grow across multiple regions. However, at the school level, we are focused on providing clear places for flexibility in order to ensure that innovations continue to arise at the most important level–in our classrooms and schools with kids and families.
What was most important personal transition for you?
JS: From CEO to Board Chairman of New Leaders. For me, succession planning for years ahead of time was crucial. I may have been the best leader for New Leaders for the first decade. My longtime team member, superstar, and successor CEO–Jean Desravines–is the best leader for the 2nd decade. Transitions like this don’t go well without lots of careful planning. And you need to start planning for possible successors years ahead in my view.
JD: Educator to local politician. When you are building community services like schools, you have to do that for and with the community, not to the community. That means a lot of investment in relationships.
PS: For me, I am undergoing it currently, which is from co-founder to CEO. Rocketship has grown tremendously over the past few years and it has been a significant change in my personal leadership and growth. As a co-founder, we had fewer than 10 staff members at Rocketship, now we have over 400 and it requires a completely different approach and level of leadership from myself.
What was most important in fundraising/business development?
JS: Shared mission. Substantive, regular engagement. Candidly sharing–and asking for others’ reflections on–results and lessons learned.
AR: Again, mission. But at this point in the process people want to see a solid plan for execution underneath the mission and as the sector evolves people are becoming increasingly savvy about differentiating between plans that look good on paper (or on a slide deck) and plans that actually have the potential to work.
JD: For Rocketship, in fundraising, there were three main draws:

  1. Innovation – we pioneered the blended school model and were trying to do things completely different than traditional schools. We created a very deep community engagement strategy unlike other school networks.
  2. Quality – Our results were very good from the beginning.
  3. Growth – We were clear that we wanted to create thousands of schools from the beginning, to solve the problem at scale. While this was threatening politically, we felt it was better to be clear about our intention and allow our school quality and community engagement overcome political challenges in the long term.

In new community development, I think the thing that we worked hardest on was trying to understand the conditions by which Rocketship could succeed in another community. By far the most important factors were the availability of high quality teachers and leaders in that area and the state and local champions and laws which would govern our ability to grow high quality schools as planned. When we got those lined up, it gave the new leaders in those regions the best chance, but still an incredibly heavy lift for them.
Bios. Andy Rotherham is a leading voice in Ed policy, Executive Editor of Real Clear Education, and blogs at EduWonk. He is a founding partner at Bellwether Education, a leading education consulting firm. He served as a state board member in Virginia.
Scott Morgan launched Education Pioneers ten years ago to recruit top talent into education. After teaching social studies in Alabama, Scott served as legal counsel for Aspire Public Schools.
John Danner is a co-founder of Rocketship Education, the top performing California elementary network. Danner taught in Tennessee and was the founding director of KIPP Academy Nashville. Before teaching, John was founder and CEO of NetGravity, an Internet advertising software company.
Preston Smith is also a co-founder of Rocketship Education. Previously Smith was the founding principal of L.U.C.H.A. Elementary School in the Alum Rock Unified School District.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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