New Book Guides Nonprofits Through Seven Make-It or Break-It Points

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"Seven Turning Points" identifies pivotal junctures at which nonprofits must reassess the way they operate and make fundamental changes or risk decline. Each chapter describes symptoms and challenges and offers leaders usable advice on what they can do to move their organization to a new level of effectiveness, impact, and sustainability.

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Seven Turning Points: Leading through Pivotal Transitions in Organizational Life.

The nonprofit was growing swiftly until the recession hit. Most of its growth, however, had been unplanned. It simply seized opportunities and took on more and more without any clear focus or strategy. This left the organization moving in so many different directions that it was hard to see its core or how its projects were connected.

Already overworked and overwhelmed, the staff is now dreading necessary budget cuts that will stretch them even more thinly. They know the organization needs to focus, but they can’t agree on what its priorities should be. They recognize that some projects need to be trimmed back, as long as it’s not theirs.

This scenario is not uncommon. In fact, it’s fairly predictable. This is one of the pivotal moments described in Susan Gross’ new book, "Seven Turning Points: Leading through Pivotal Transitions in Organizational Life."

"Seven Turning Points" is based on Gross' thirty-five years of experience guiding nonprofits through organizational change.

Written in vivid portraits of organizational life, the book helps nonprofits recognize and understand critical junctures when they must reassess the way they operate and make fundamental changes in order to move to a new level of effectiveness.

“As organizations mature, grow, or face changing conditions, the leadership, structure, management, and operating norms that once worked start to break down. In fact,” says Gross, “the management solutions for one phase often turn into the management problems of another.”

Turning points are most likely to arise at these seven times in a group's life:

Turning Point 1: Do we need to get organized?
In their start-up years, most nonprofits operate with a loose, informal, familial style. When staff reaches the pivotal size of six or more, a number of stresses begin to show up. There’s confusion over who’s responsible for what. Tasks and deadlines fall between the cracks, and the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. The organization needs to develop tighter management and more formal structures and systems.

Turning Point 2: Do we need infrastructure?
The management needs of an organization outstrip its executive director’s skills. Having focused on program work, the nonprofit’s back office functions have been neglected. Financial tracking is in disarray. Administrative systems either don’t exist or don’t work. Fundraising is hand-to-mouth. The organization needs to build infrastructure and strengthen management.

Turning Point 3: Do we need to let go?
A founding volunteer board hires its first executive director but finds it hard to delegate and adjust to a less involved role. To attract and keep a strong staff, the board has to let go of day-to-day control, shift to a governance role, and hand over to the executive director both responsibility and authority for running the organization.

Turning Point 4: Do we need to focus?
Organizations that are reluctant to turn down anything grow rapidly, often doubling or even tripling in size in just a year or two. However, instead of being deliberate, nearly all of this growth is without strategy, coherence, or overall design. Overwhelmed staff begs the executive director to set priorities, focus on a few key areas, and have the discipline to stick to them.

Turning Point 5: Do we need to decentralize power?
Strong central direction becomes micromanagement, top-down control, and over-dependency on the leader. The organization needs to decentralize power, management, and decision-making, allowing a team of talented staff leaders to emerge and flourish.

Turning Point 6: Do we need to recapture our core?
Decentralization goes too far, splitting the organization into disconnected silos. Fiefdoms emerge, protecting their turf and vying with each other for funding and central “service” department support. The organizational culture becomes competitive and territorial. The organization needs to rediscover its core goals, consolidate and integrate its programs, and tighten its structure and management.

Turning Point 7: How do we move on?
A longtime, cherished executive director must prepare to step down. The organization has to empower senior managers and build the bench strength of its staff so it’s no longer dependent on any one person but has a strong, multifaceted leadership team that can assure the organization’s long-term sustainability.

"Seven Turning Points" recognizes that organizations don’t evolve neatly, graduating from one life cycle to the next. Instead, the book provides a fluid, nuanced, and non-linear approach to organizational development that resonates with the realities of nonprofit life. Each turning point includes:

  • The characteristic pattern of problems that signal the need for change.
  • Reassurance that problems are an inevitable consequence of change or growth. This stops staff and board members from blaming themselves or each other so they can focus on taking action before tensions escalate into full-blown crises.
  • Illustrations of how the prototypical problems interconnect, reinforce one another, and thus require systemic rather than piecemeal change.
  • Recommended changes in structure, leadership, management, governance, operating style, and culture, and practical advice on how to make them.
  • Warnings about counter-tensions that changes are likely to produce and how to manage them.
  • Graphic examples of what really happens in organizations based on the author’s experience with hundreds of nonprofits.

Executives, boards, and consultants will gain new tools to manage change. Funders will better understand grantees’ challenges and the types of grants that will help them navigate turning points. Management and leadership development programs will help students move from the abstract to down-to-earth realities of what really happens in organizations.

Armed with awareness and recommended concrete actions, "Seven Turning Points" will enable nonprofit leaders to move their organizations to new level s of effectiveness, impact, and staying power.

About the Author
SUSAN GROSS, noted organizational development consultant and author, has spent more than thirty-five years strengthening nonprofit organizations so that their people and programs succeed. She is cofounder of the Management Assistance Group (MAG), an organization that sees building the power of nonprofits as a critical contribution to the creation of a more just and equitable world.

About Management Assistance Group
For more than twenty-eight years, the Management Assistance Group (MAG) has helped social justice organizations develop strong leadership, effective management, robust governance, sound structures, and potent strategies. Providing one-on-one consulting, workshops, management training, and capacity-building programs for groups of related organizations, MAG plays a part in building a vital social justice community, and, in turn, a better future. Visit:

About the Publisher
Fieldstone Alliance is committed to strengthening the performance of the nonprofit sector. Through consulting, training, publishing, and demonstration projects, it provides solutions to issues facing nonprofits, funders, and the communities they serve. Visit:

(Fieldstone Alliance was formerly Wilder Publishing and Wilder Consulting departments of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.)

For more information about the book, visit:


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