Nonprofit Lifecycles, by Susan Stevens

The first book I would propose for your shelf would be Nonprofit Lifecycles by Susan Stevens.  At the Dodge Foundation, we used to buy this book by the carton to hand out to our grantees.  Stevens presents a stage-based approach to understanding organizational development, identifying and explaining the following stages: Idea; Start-Up; Growth; Maturity; Decline; Turnaround; Terminal. 

Using the model as an ongoing diagnostic tool fits hand in glove with the creation of an assessment culture.  It also very powerfully sets the non-defensive tone so essential for an assessment culture.  In the absence of the life-cycles perspective, when things go wrong, you ask whose fault it is.  With the lifecycles perspective, when things go wrong, you say, “Of course we have this problem to deal with.  It is a predictable challenge of our stage of development.”  What a relief, particularly to overworked executive directors, who usually blame themselves.

Stevens imagines an organization’s mission as a flowering plant sitting on a tabletop of programs that support the mission.  Supporting the programs are the four “table legs” of management, governance, financial resources, and administrative systems. You can see what happens if any of the table legs is shorter than the others – the table wobbles.  If any of the legs stops developing appropriately and gets really short, the table will tip and the mission will crash – terminal.  In an assessment culture, we periodically ask: How’s our table?