Pearl #18: Find the Balance Between Stability and Nimbleness

Throughout the year, our blog series “Pearls: 30 Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey will be featuring lessons we’ve learned as an organization throughout the past three decades. These “pearls,” as we call them, illuminate how we’ve survived and thrived for 30 years. 

Find the Balance Between Stability and Nimbleness 

How We’ve Survived and Thrived 

According to the JPMorgan Chase Institute, 51% of small businesses are ten years old or less, and 32% of small businesses are five years old or less! A third of new businesses exit within their first two years and half are gone within their first five years. This isn’t a new phenomenon; these statistics have been consistent over time and reflect the challenges of longevity for businesses. As we celebrate Women’s Bean Project’s 30th birthday, we have been reflecting on the factors that have led to our ability to survive – and thrive – for three decades. Though there have been many challenges along the way, I believe our continued existence can best be attributed to our learned ability to be both stable and nimble. 

The statistics cited are for small businesses, but they are still somewhat applicable to nonprofit organizations. During my 16 year tenure at the Bean Project I have seen many organizations shutter. The often the stated reason for closure is due to the loss of a single major funder or source of funding, but I believe there are other factors that impact the long-term sustainability of a nonprofit.  

Keys to Long-term Sustainability 

Long-term sustainability of a nonprofit organization isn’t merely about the money. The mission work of the organization must be relevant to the needs of the people it seeks to serve as well as the community at large. That’s why we continue to update our program to ensure it is still meeting its intended purpose. 

We also have a strategic plan guiding our work. The plan is created every few years and requires several months to finish because feedback from all of our constituents is sought. Having a strategic plan allows us to communicate that we are thinking about the future, as well as our continued relevance and value to the community. 

The more conscious we are of how we create and maintain our value to the community, the more we will attract people – program participants, staff, donors and volunteers who are interested in supporting us. Then, the more support we have, the greater our capacity to fulfill our mission and the more value we create in the community. It becomes a perpetual cycle.  

How do we know we fulfill our mission? Though we measure many things throughout the women’s tenure in our program, it seems to me the most important metric of our success is whether or not they keep a job after they have left us. Because we pay graduates $50 to check in with us at six and 12 months post-graduation, we know that a year after graduating 93% of our graduates are still employed. Because employment is the key to breaking out of poverty and staying out of prison, this is an important way for us to measure our impact. 

Adapting to the World Around Us 

The world has not stayed the same for 30 years and we have had to adapt to the changes in our local economy as well as national trends. In 1989 when we were founded, welfare reform had not yet been enacted. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 is a United States federal law passed by the 104th United States Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It was largely focused on moving people from long-term dependence on public funding (usually referred to as welfare). Additionally, in 1989 we hadn’t yet seen the effects of mass incarceration on women. Between 1980 and 2016 the female incarceration rate grew 700% – twice as fast as men’s incarceration rate

And for the Bean Project these social changes are only part of the story. Because we are also a food manufacturer, we have had to stay aware of trends in the food industry as well. How people in the US eat has changed since 1989. Today consumers are more willing to try unusual or exotic flavors, snacking is more prevalent and grab-and-go choices are popular.  

Changes to both the social and consumer landscapes require that we be adaptable, and constantly examine our successes and challenges to make adjustments accordingly. In many ways, we behave as a 30-year-old start up because that mentality allows us to be nimble and solution-oriented in the face of an ever-changing environment.  

Lastly, I see my role as the leader of the organization to be the picture-painter. My job is to help the team envision a future in which we hire every woman who needs us, then ensure that the services we provide are so effective and far-reaching that each woman in our program is the last in her family to need us. This requires strength, resilience and adaptability as a leader and means that I must take time to regularly reflect on how we might shift to remain effective and adaptable. The tight wire we walk – between being stable and nimble is narrow and long. But the trip is well worth it. 

Written by Tamra Ryan, CEO 


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