Expanding the vision: Scaling the impact of a nonprofit organization

Growth comes with fear and uncertainty…

As I think about the work ahead, I confront mixed emotions of excitement, fear, and worry. I am booking flights to Houston — two more trips before the end of the year. The year-end rush is the result of a crazy idea, a phone call, and chance friendships. 

We are expanding our services to youth impacted by Harvey. And with it comes a lot of back-and-forth discussion on priorities and possibilities. I’m learning that nonprofits often find themselves in this same position — having a desire and willingness to increase impact but not knowing if the growth is feasible. 

We plan, forecast and strategize. We generate reports, research, and prospects. We calculate budgets and map out the landscape to highlight areas of need. In the end — regardless of our due diligence — it’s all a theory. Hearing that still makes me uncomfortable. I love plans and fear uncertainty. I would love to go into every new endeavor with guarantees on our execution. However, it’s impossible to imagine all the variables until we actually begin the work.

There are usually more questions than answers

Where do we find local leaders? How hands-on do I need to be in the process? What is the expected budget? How do we measure success? What’s a good target outcome? And in this particular instance, we have more unique questions. In a program that functions in schools, how do we serve the students of schools that have been closed indefinitely? Who else is willing to open the doors to let us host our classes?

Questions are good. They are usually a precursor to gaining new knowledge and understanding. I am still learning to let go of the uneasiness of being ignorant — seeing it as a sign that I have some gaps in understanding to fill. As someone who can overthink, I have to be okay with getting the most important and immediate questions answered and leaving the rest for later. 

Revisit the mission and invest in people 

I first connected to the Houston dance community at an event ‘Who’s Faking Da Funk’ hosted by local crew Item#Funk. I bumped into some dancers I hadn’t seen in over a decade and immediately felt the positive vibes from the community. People left egos at the door, came into the venue and rooted for their competitors. Win or lose, everyone had a good time and encouraged each other. And as someone who doesn’t frequent Houston much, I felt like family. 

It’s what I appreciate about the dance community — our ability to connect through love for a shared language of movement. I felt it that day as much as I did when I first started dancing in Boston. I knew EDN! would eventually come here. Not sure when, but I would make it happen. There were talented individuals with good hearts and a willingness to serve. I wanted to assist them as much as I could. When I returned to New York, I made an effort to stay connected.

Then Harvey hit. I sent out messages to see how people there were doing. Thankfully, outside of damaged homes and some lost possessions, my friends were all safe and in surprisingly good spirits.

I wasn’t sure what this meant for our goals bringing classes to the community there. People were looking for shelter, food, and stability. I doubted the role I could have in providing relief. I assumed we would put Houston programs on hold and direct our energy elsewhere. 

I donated what I could to Harvey efforts. In my mind, it still didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to be hands on. I wanted to utilize my strengths for the benefit of others. What if dance is something that can be donated to the recovery efforts? What if this wasn’t a sign to pull back, but to move forward? 

I remember thinking about how much dance had taken me out of my own struggles; allowed me a sense of joy when I was down. Maybe it can do that for others. Once people had their basic needs met, they also need a sense of normalcy — a sense that there are still moments of joy along the struggle. Maybe dance can bring people together, get them laughing and challenging themselves, expressing the mix of emotions they must have.

Share your idea…you might find someone crazy enough to believe in you

I got on the weekly call with National Director, Kelli, and shared my thoughts. My emotions and excitement poured out. It took me by surprise. I didn’t realize how much the ideas had been festering in my head, waiting for the right captive audience to listen. When I finished, Kelli waited for a few seconds and immediately was on board. We began brainstorming ways to make it happen, where to secure funding, and how to build a talented team remotely who believed in our vision for impact.

The benefit of having a small team is that the decision process is easy. With two full-time staff, counting the votes is easy. The downside to being short-staffed is that the work falls on a few shoulders already carrying the load of multiple projects and obligations. To take on this new priority we might have to shift some things around.

By the time we had gotten off of our first call, the uneasiness began to set in. Funny how that happens right after you start pursuing something important. Our desire to see our work flourish would need to be stronger than our fears of the unknown. That is what it takes to accomplish something crazy - the ability to see beyond our current limitations to what could be; risking the chance that it might not end up like we’d hope.

One of our advisors reaffirmed that for me. “You have to put yourself into different circles. If you are only building momentum where you are, your circle will never bring the outside resources it needs to expand. The moment you take that energy and allow it to be seen by new eyes, then you will be amazed at how the right people and the right opportunities will come your way.” Here’s hoping he is right. 

For now, I am reaching out to make our mission known to community leaders, funders, and potential site partners in the Houston area. It’s uncharted territory for us and a test not only of our model but also of my competency as a leader. Cold emails and phone calls, research, meetings, and recruitment will be part of my regular day for the next few months. And with it is the lingering question: Can we make it work?