by Doug Waddill

There are invisible lines everywhere we go.  There are boundaries of cities, states, and counties that are real, but they cannot be seen with the naked eye.  There are more figurative “lines” that occur as well.  For example, when one moves from hungry to full or from a run to a sprint.  (That last example is a VERY subtle line for me!)  There is a line when a bad mood can turn to an outburst or when a giggle turns to a laugh as well.  These are not easy to pinpoint, but they are real nonetheless.  Nonprofit success can also be measured with a line.  That line is when a non-profit moves from “hoping” to “planning.”  Non-profits are started for a wide array of reasons, but I would venture to say that all are started with the “hopes and wishes” that come from a deep seeded passion and desire to change something that needs attention within a system or community.  That passion drives a mission that attracts support and momentum is created.   But “hopes and wishes” can only be fuel for an organization for so long.  So, there must come a transition from “hopes and wishes” to “plans and goals.”  The change is subtle, but the impact is huge.  It is moving from the utopian to something possible, from an idea to something measureable, from a thought to an action, and from a dream to reality.

As the program manager that oversees MMI’s Institute for Non-Profit Excellence (INE), it is my pleasure to work with five music agencies in Memphis that are finding ways to use music to transition their initial hopes and desires to real and meaningful goals and objectives, and they are making an impact in Memphis for black and brown youth in noticeable ways.  They are organizations that are driven to succeed with leadership that is willing to learn and work collaboratively.  They are strengthening their abilities, reach, and impact with the communities that they serve by utilizing tools for planning that stretch them past their initial hopes.

The INE agencies are Angel Street Ministries, Memphis Black Arts Alliance,  PRIZM Ensemble, STAX Music Academy and Visible Communities Music School.  They each have a unique set of “hopes” that lead to diverse set of “goals.”  They seek ways to collaborate on initiatives throughout Memphis in the youth development sector.  They have moved passed the questions of “what ifs” to creating actions that answer the question of “how.”

INE organizations have found opportunities throughout their programming to collaborate and partner with other INE agencies.  This is helping each organization become aware of other’s programs as well as streamline their own programming niche.  It is a big step in helping Memphis collectively break down the silos that many non-profits function within.  It enables the focus to be placed on the students’ needs, not the organization’s “claim” to a certain area or activity.  One of the aspects that led to this was the ability of each organization to cross-market programs and events for each other.  This enabled the organizations to not only learn about programs and activities offered, but see the needs and the gifts each agency brings to the sector.   I have seen examples in groups exchanging music teachers, curriculum, assessments, and other resources that could have been seen as proprietary.  Guitar teachers from Visible Community teach private lessons at Angel Street. STAX talent is shared with MBAA to emcee a large event, and marketing for summer camps is shared throughout all of the agencies through cross-marketing to support engagement.

INE agencies have specifically enhanced measures for data collection and assessment of specified outcomes for youth.  They are seeking practical and systematic assessment tools to showcase success for the youth served by their programs.  Enhanced attention to data and assessment helps agencies keep a focus on what matters most to them as well as create a streamlined and consistent approach to working on that area.  It allows them to see and celebrate successes in a mission that is sometimes hard to see change in the day to day.  It helps agencies highlight the work that they are doing and the difference they are making to funders, community members, and a potential national audience.  This is important for reasons far beyond funding.  It is important for work that is making a difference to be studied and possibly replicated.  That will help other community and organizations not have to reinvent the wheel to accomplish their mission.  Again, this breaks down silos as organizations seek to truly explore best practices and learn from each other in authentic ways.   One of the elements that specifically came about through group training from STAX was the idea that an initial audition form should be the same form and criteria used for juries at the close of the year.  This idea was utilized by other agencies to enhance the assessment practices for their individual organization.   Assessment surveys for pre/post-test and participation surveys were streamlined to make sure that agencies were getting the information that was useful in informing program improvements.

Leaders of the participant organizations shared that throughout the INE cohort period they “experienced a high degree of professional growth as a leader.”  That is a mark that not only highlights trainings being applicable to the audience, but also the caliber of the members present.  Cohort members came to trainings ready and willing to learn and be vulnerable.  Vulnerability attracts and invites others in.  We see that is our module training that our participants do not feel “alone” with any obstacle that they may face.  In our final module training, participants were fortunate to have a panel of experts in the Memphis area speak to them about how to utilize rest in the process of leadership.  They were also guided on how to find support for individualized coaching that helps them combat the increased demands from the multi-faceted roles that they each possess.  Panelists shared insights on being authentic with offering programming and following the organizational missions and not swaying from missions, just to appease a donor or board member.

During the course of the last year, the boards of participant organizations were present for a collaborative board trainings and a “board governance challenge” in which boards each selected goals that they could work on independently of the executive director and agency leadership.  This would work on mission goals for the organization while freeing up some of the energies of the leadership/director.  Boards play an integral role in the success of an organization.  Oftentimes boards are an under-utilized resource.  The dedication, time, and energy needed from each board member does not need to be downplayed, and that a great voice in the community sharing about the heart and mission of the organization.  INE cohort members seek to better understand the roles of board members, and they each grew in their ability to have a true governing and working board that was in line with the mission of the organization.  After board training, PRIZM ensemble’s board decided to revamp and reevaluate their board and committee structure to make sure that their practices were based on needs and not rituals.  Buy-in from board members and leadership allowed for the genuine exercise in goal-setting, vision creation, and asset focus to take place in an authentic and meaningful way.   Board members from all 5 agencies spent time discussing the recent goals they were working on in their organization and how they support the overall mission.  This was an insightful time for all agencies to see how each board operates as well as gain ideas and momentum for their own sphere of work.

Non-profits must be multi-faceted and must be able to seek knowledge from peers and the community.  INE agencies had great success in achieving those goals.  As nonprofits emerge and march forward towards their passion, I would urge them to seek out the beacons in the community that can help them find the line that takes them from “dreamers” into “doers.”

Doug Waddill is a program manager for the Institute for Non-Profits of Excellence for Memphis Music Initiative.  He worked as the Director of Education for the Greater Houston YMCA as well as a former elementary school principal.  He loves seeing how all non-profits can find ways to work together to create opportunities for youth leadership.