Connecting Past & Present for Nonprofit Success

Girl Thinking

I was at a local coffee shop the other day with a colleague, and got up to peruse the snacks at the front counter, when I came across a sign on the wall that said “Don’t look into your past, it has nothing left to say.” While I could see some benefit to the sentiment, I couldn’t help but think: can’t our past also inform our future?

Bringing this idea into the nonprofit realm, here are three times I think taking a moment to reflect on and evaluate the past can actually be a great tool for, of all things, moving forward.

Nonprofit vision and mission

Let’s go waayyy back. To the beginning of it all. When your nonprofit opened its doors, what were its goals and who was leading the charge? Try to imagine the excitement, the eagerness, the big-dreamer attitude that must have been at the heart of it. Is it still there today? Is it possible that while your programs have adapted to a changing landscape, or employees have come and gone, your original vision (and passion) has been lost in the shuffle? Here are some ways to connect the best of the past with the present.

  • Schedule some strategic planning that includes an intentional review of your vision, mission, and bylaws. Encourage participants to bring their most hopeful and creative ideas to the table.
  • Go into your archives and pull out the impacts of smaller, original programs. Imagine what it must have felt like to go from nothing to something. Is any of it scalable today?
  • Include attributes like optimism, creativity, and courage in your job postings. Add a module about how and why your organization had its start in your new employee and volunteer orientations.

Evaluating special events and campaigns

I know, I know, we all more likely want to forget the events that barely broke even, or didn’t get enough media coverage or participant attendance. It can be painful to revisit failed projects, but approaching them with a present-day lens, and from a place of curiosity, could yield some valuable ideas. Here are some questions to get you going:

  • What were the pain points and have systems improved?
  • What individual aspects worked well and can you pull those into a laser-focused events today?
  • Has the level of your donor and volunteer engagement changed, and how could that impact the same event today?
  • Have you set up community collaborations that could make the event viable now?
Man sits alone at event

Building on success

Looking back upon things doesn’t always have to be about getting better. As an organization, you have to take the time to reflect on successes too – celebrate the things that have gone right! Keep track of your accomplishments and make them accessible to anyone who needs some inspiration. Here are some ways to share with your team:

  • Include success stories in internal newsletters or memos, and give a shout-out to your team that made it happen.
  • Put up photos in prominent places; give staff members framed photos of themselves at the event.
  • When you’re planning for your next event or campaign, review your debriefs to build confidence.

Are you doing any of these things already? Is there a time you can of where looking back helped you to move forward also? Share it below!

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