FROM KITCHEN TABLE TO BOARD ROOM
Northwest Indiana Cancer Kids
Like many young nonprofits, NICK, Northwest Indiana Cancer Kids, has started strong, running on the energy and passion of the founder and her family members who had recently worked through the cancer diagnosis of a child, (grandchild to the Executive Director). With their child in remission, the family decided they wanted to support other families who found themselves in the same terrible situation and NICK was born. These start-ups are often called “kitchen table” nonprofits, because they start with a group of family and friends sitting around a kitchen table wondering how they can help. For NICK, that help initially meant providing short term financial assistance to help parents cover the cost of commuting to regional medical centers, assistance with travel arrangements to different states, and the support of someone who had traveled this path and was willing to listen and to share her lessons learned.
Over time, NICK filed for and received their official 403c status, formed a Board, and added a part-time staff member to assist with managing the growing calendar of events and fundraisers that they sponsored or supported. Their efforts to connect to families became more formal, they became active with local research hospitals and other charitable and advocacy groups, and their commitment to promising research in pediatric cancer became more serious and time consuming.
But as the organization matured, the ambitions of the organization and their growing reputation in the community placed a greater and greater strain on the Executive Director and on the Board. At the time I started working with them, the paid part time employee had just turned in her resignation, several Board members were involved in power struggles and threatening to quit, and the volunteer Executive Director was almost ready to let the whole thing implode.
NICK retained Strategic Innovation to help them decide if and how they should proceed. To do this, Jane knew that she had to get all the sides of the story, so she began with confidential one-on-one interviews. Based on the issues she heard, she shared feedback and leadership suggestions with the Executive Director. Although feedback is always a gift, it doesn’t always feel that way straight out of the box, and it took a little time to determine how to move forward. During that time, Jane had each Board member complete a self evaluation to help them see the full range of responsibilities that Board members need to be willing to accept and to identify the strengths and the gaps in the group as a whole. As a result, one Board member did decide that it was time for him to move on—but he left on good terms, still committed to the work on the major fund raiser that he had Chaired in the past.
The remaining Board members came together for a one-day strategic planning session to outline the way forward. After a presentation of the findings from the earlier research, they participated in a group, creating a month-by-month list of their priorities. This process was designed to help the organization be intentional about what was “in” and what was “out” so they could say “no” to the kinds of ad hoc requests that had overextended and derailed them in the past. It was also an exercise in helping the Executive Director learn to let go, delegate, and accept help. Issues and decisions that had sometimes been moved outside the Boardroom to avoid conflict or unilaterally decided by “executive order” were addressed head-on and put through a consensus-driven problem-solving process. With Jane as facilitator to make sure that everyone participated and that issues were put on the table, discussed, resolved and documented, they made great headway and had a solid plan for the next five quarters.