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In the early phase of many states’ efforts to build a community-based model of care instead of perpetuating the long-accepted institutional model, there often existed a fair amount of doubt for a variety of reasons. For example, the institutional model had been in place for a long time, which meant that it was firmly embedded in various towns, cities, and states that had adopted it decades earlier.

It helped perpetuate the model of the institutional providers and the idea community- based groups were not even close to the institutional size and sophistication of their “competitors.” In practice it took years to turn many local groups into strong competitors. The fact is that the leadership of the new community-based rivals that would eventually become a strong force, typically started out in humble circumstances, such as “canwe borrow money for tomorrow’s payroll?”

How It Is Different

When community-model advocates began to become aware that it could carry a significant amount of promise for future expansion, planners and observers found it easier to see a more enticing view of the future. At the same time, however, planners and dreamers, many of whom had just graduated from the college undergraduate ranks, began to see the difficulties involved in this new approach to client care.

Although many found roles as participants in some of these evolutions, not all did. For those who developed a good idea along the way, their management skills would almost certainly have attracted a higher level of manager(s) just to recognize and promise to continue on the implicit pathway that the new model essentially promised.

This is the trajectory of a small entity operating in a relatively large environ environment. What makes this relationship significant is that it occurs in the current day. The entity might – or might not – be able to keep its competitive position. Should the same question be asked today of groups similar to those in the 1970s and 1980s there would probably be a resounding “no.” This would come straight from the several years that the founder(s) worked to keep the organization running.

Small Organization, Large Problem

The major problem with a small organization not tied to a larger one is that it often needs to spend proportionately more energy and money on the organization. For example, small to medium-sized organizations often do not have sufficient administrative staff to support the realities of short-handed organizations. There might well be a position described as “financial manager” or something similar, but the expectations for this kind of position in a small to medium nonprofit requires far less training and polished performance than do financial managers in organizations in the $20 million and more level.

This potential mismatch means that organizational leadership on both sides often has to accommodate the realities of both parties, as implied above. To keep the many variables on both sides from confusing decision-making efforts, the common way of capitalizing on the problem is to build a triangle. Such a triangle is quite common, even though it often is not literally a triangle.

In this context, a $45 million “parent” organization should, of course, examine some of the key aspects of a smaller potential partner in person and on the record in both directions. For instance, larger organizations might be easily able to expand a smaller group’s purchasing power. Larger organizations almost always can out-buy smaller groups’ efforts. But the larger organization’s underlying strength, often shrugged off at first, especially by the smaller group, can be easy to overlook.

The implication of this seemingly bland observation is that it misses one of the most powerful aspects of a large provider’s capabilities — systems and those who run them. While this observation can seem bland, the larger group can and usually does use its strength to its advantage. And, why not? This observation might seem somewhat lackluster in the context established above. But large organizations like the one described have an inherent advantage in that the services usually must be used and paid for by someone.

The Question at Hand

Just as a busy boss might unintentionally under-teach, other bosses and even some of peers can over-teach. This is a fairly common issue in many training environments, especially those involving young and/or insufficiently prepared people. The implication of this kind of built-in flaw is that either many of the participants don’t take the issue seriously, or they take it seriously but can’t implement.

Although this section is last in the column, it tacitly — if not loudly — makes the point that human beings faced with a complicated assignment (bosses and impatient supervisors, for example) need to know the limits of their own capacities and abilities. The real challenge is that members of a functional team need to learn how to manage this team – and almost certainly many others as well.

Tom McLaughlin is a consultant exclusively to nonprofit organizations. His book “Streetsmart Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers” is in its fourth edition. He has a regular column in The NonProfit Times and has taught at the university level for more than 30 years.

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