Some milestones resonate more than others, but turning 40 is a big one by any measure – in organizations just as much as people. Over and over, we have found that once a nonprofit institution hits about 40 staff, the people and behaviors that worked so well during the start-up phase of the organization are no longer a good fit for the needs of a larger, more mature enterprise. To sustain the growth that got them to 40, pretty much every element of organizational capacity needs to evolve: staff, skills, systems and infrastructure.
This can make for a rough transition. It can be difficult for people who have been used to wearing multiple hats to accept a narrower remit. They understand intellectually why it’s preferable to have someone with real content expertise on the team – in Human Resources, for example – but will often chafe at the more bureaucratic systems and processes an HR professional will institute. Certain personality types, as well, thrive in the somewhat chaotic, informal culture that dominates start-ups and are less suited to such management challenges as building high-performing teams and taking programs to scale. Others like the camaraderie and family feel of a small institution.
I sympathize with these perspectives, particularly because the disruptions unleashed by turning 40 are, ironically, the consequence of success. It takes a tremendous about of determination, skill, fortitude, and luck to grow a nonprofit from an idea to a thriving enterprise with 40 people and an operating budget in the millions.
So rather than focus on what’s lost, we advise our clients going through this phase in the nonprofit lifecycle to celebrate their successes and to take heart in the increased mission impact that operating at greater scale will enable them to achieve. More capacity and expertise is a good problem. New HR practices really can make life easier. More sophisticated financial systems really do add value. Professional communicators really do know more about marketing than program staff. And so on.
It takes strong leadership from the top to turn 40 successfully. Leaders navigating this transition – especially founders – need to be willing to delegate, to listen and respect the expertise of others, but at the same time to set high standards and hold people accountable. Staff need to keep an open mind and not feel threatened by changes. And instead of expecting more care and feeding, the Board, donors, and stakeholders can tamp down their expectations for organizations that are hitting this 40-person inflection point. After all, by 40 we all deserve a little slack.