New nonprofit organizations tend to be driven by a core group of individuals. They do the work, raise the money, and sit on the board of the organization. They recruit friends and family to volunteer and local merchants to sponsor events. The energy and passion that comes from this group is critically important to successfully launch an organization. But too many organizations – even ones that have been around for years – depend too heavily on the experience or knowledge of those few people. One of the most challenging but important steps organizations must take to become truly sustainable is to institutionalize their knowledge and relationships.
Institutional knowledge is the who, what, where, why, and how of your organization’s operation. What is the mission of the organization? What are the unique roles of each staff member? How do you measure success? What are your goals for the future? Institutional knowledge tells the story of your organization – where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s going. On a deeper level, it all that transpires within your organization on a day-to-day basis comprises institutional knowledge. That knowledge needs to be captured and maintained in a meaningful and systematic way so that it can be accessed and analyzed easily.
Institutional relationships are the connections between your organization’s constituents and your organization itself. These relationships usually start out as a relationship between two individuals. For instance, a board member may invite a friend to contribute to the organization. In many cases, the organization representative who has the personal relationship will continue to manage the relationship. While their personal relationship does belong to them alone, the business relationship belongs to the organization. That person’s history as a donor or volunteer as well as information about their interest in increasing/decreasing involvement belongs to the organization. If your Executive Director is cultivating a donor to become a board member, knowledge generated from that process belongs to the organization. Consequently, like institutional knowledge, the relationship between individuals and the institutions must be maintained in a systematic way.
Why is this so important? It is critically important to institutionalize knowledge and relationships for a few reasons. The obvious one is that if any key individuals were to leave the organization, any knowledge or relationships that have not been institutionalized would go with them. While the people make an organization, a sustainable organization cannot depend on any individuals’ unique knowledge and experience.
But that is far from the only reason. Institutional knowledge and relationships form the basis of strategic planning. When the leaders of the organization embark on a new programmatic or fundraising initiative, they need to all be on the same page about the historical context in which it is occurring. They need to base their decisions on the same set of facts. Only through shared institutional knowledge can you ensure that everyone is in alignment.
How can you institutionalize knowledge and relationships? The knowledge and relationships of an organization must be maintained in a systematic way. In many cases, maintaining relationships is surprisingly the easier one. CRM (Contact Relationship Management) systems are designed to keep track of your organization’s volunteers, donors, board members, program participants, vendors, and any other constituents. These tools should maintain the bulk of your program and fundraising data. Most organizations have one system for the program side and another for the program side. But if your fundraising is closely linked to your program, you should explore systems that allow you to maintain all of that information in one convenient place. (We are one of the few vendors in the industry to offer that.)
Other information, should be maintained in as few well-designed systems as possible. Some information belongs in file cabinets. Other information belongs in employee manuals and handbooks. Other information belongs in computer files. However, in all cases, it is imperative to organize these systems in such a way that people know exactly where and how to access the information they need.
Getting started is hard. With so many pressing matters happening all the time, it is difficult to find the time to embark on this endeavor. But ask yourself: “Is it a priority to make this organization sustainable?” if so, you need to make a plan. First, start with an audit of your existing institutional knowledge. Begin with the big picture and zoom in from there. The big picture consists of the story of your organization. How was it started, where is it today, how did it get there, and what is the vision for the future? Is that information documented in a meaningful way? On the next level is the organizational structure, the general funding sources, and the general constituents being served. As you dive one level deeper, you get into the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day operations. Are each individual’s roles and responsibilities clearly defined? How and where do they capture the data they need to perform their duties, measure performance, and develop strategic plans? How does the program operate? Only once you have identified the strengths and weaknesses of your existing institutional knowledge can you develop a roadmap for institutionalizing knowledge and relationships. And once you have that roadmap, you will be able to determine the best types of systems for each of the functions.
Don’t wait. Institutionalizing knowledge and relationships isn’t just good for your organization. It’s good for you too. You’ll be amazed by how relieved you will feel when all the experience you and your team have accumulated gets captured for eternity. You will open doors you had never even imagined and take your organization to new heights.