COMMENTARY: How To Build A Functioning Nonprofit Organization – Or Not

Community Foundation should offer free workshops to strengthen the vision, planning and board governance of existing and aspiring organizations

There are a lot of resources and advice available online, through the Community Foundation for San Benito County and at the library on how to start a nonprofit organization, so I won't pretend to offer any of that here. But I will offer some common sense advice based on personal experience on how I started two local nonprofit organizations in San Benito County for community consideration. I also included a helpful video at the bottom of the commentary for reference. 

I moved my family to Hollister in 1995. My daughter, Danielle, was 8 years old and my son, Gregory, was 5 years old. We acclimated as a family to the community and quickly discovered that activities for kids were limited, especially because neither child enjoyed soccer or took an interest in other sports. They took an interest in children's theater, but we had to carpool the kids to Gilroy five nights a week for rehearsals because San Benito County didn't have a community theater group.

So to make a long story short, with the help of then-County Counsel Steve Sanders and a few other interested community parents, Mr. Sanders drafted the articles of incorporation and we created a nonprofit community theater organization in 1999 and called it: The San Benito Stage Company. Our first production was "The Wizard of Oz" held at the San Benito High School auditorium; and it was a smashing success. We produced four shows with some sold-out performances and quickly established the support of the community. All these years later, The San Benito Stage Company is still a successful nonprofit organization serving up community theater to large audiences at various venues in the county.

Intrinsic to this commentary are some basic rules, characteristics and attributes every nonprofit organization needs to follow and employ to serve the community and enjoy sustained success.

Vision – In order to build a cohesive and functional nonprofit organization, there must be a clear and compelling vision to which others will identify with and support. One leader will usually emerge to execute that vision with the dynamic support of others to successfully accomplish the stated mission and vision of the team.

Passion – Passion is the key ingredient that motivates leaders to serve others, overcome formidable challenges, defeat fear of failure and tirelessly pursue all resources to develop the protocols and communication skills to keep the collective team on task as well as identify and execute contingencies in order to get the job done.

Planning – Planning is key to the success of any nonprofit organization. The old axiom is true: When you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Even when a new nonprofit group emerges without much experience, formal education or subjective expertise, there are usually industry standard resources available from multiple professional organizations to help the team plan and execute a successful strategy for the nonprofit to serve its customers. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Governance – Wikipedia defines Governance as 'the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in a collective problem that lead to the creation, reinforcement, or reproduction of social norms and institutions. A nonprofit board of directors should follow all of the policies and procedures established by its Articles of Incorporation in order to demonstrate to financial supporters – and the IRS – that its business operations meet all applicable laws and requirements to receive tax deductible donations and the sustained support of the community it serves. Crucial to the long term success of a mature nonprofit organization is Succession Planning – in order to continue the operation in the event of the loss of an executive director or key board member – as well as a healthy desire to seek and elect new and sometimes younger board members in order to reach out to new and diverse segments of the community the organization serves.

Fundraising and Capital Campaigns – Community nonprofit organizations exist through the financial contributions of satisfied donors and demonstrated positive results requisite to attract available nonprofit grants. Just like any for profit business, a nonprofit business and its disciplined board of directors must follow a business plan that identifies how the organization will attain and sustain viable operations with all due diligence that addresses organizational Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats identified and agreed upon by a collaborative and functional team of directors. If your organization solicits grant funding or individual donations from community members, the team should be able to make a cogent and compelling presentation and account for its established governance obligations, fiduciary responsibilities, demonstrated benefit to the community and operational successes to those philanthropic organizations or would-be benefactors whose trust and confidence you seek along with their generous financial donations. 

From time to time, the Community Foundation offers workshops to provide guidance to the many nonprofit organizations it supports and to which it grants funds on an annual basis. Maybe its time to offer such a series of workshops to San Benito County nonprofit organizations again.

Hypothetical example: A group of community members join together and advance a petition to a city to stop the sale of a piece of land to a developer, even though the developer met all the planning, zoning, engineering, construction and financial obligations necessary to complete the development project pursuant to all state and local laws and regulations. How does the nascent community group successfully oppose the hypothetical city and developer? Even if the group manages to put a stop to the sale through political referendum and lobbying of its case to a sympathetic media, how will the group maintain the stamina to endure the rigors of establishing and sustaining the long term goal of developing a People's Park or Plaza without the collective vision, passion, planning, governance and demonstrated leadership necessary to attract philanthropic grants or donations from benefactors in order to meet the planning, engineering, re-zoning, funding and construction of a public capital asset that will require long term maintenance?

Given this particular hypothetical, it is clear that certain groups in San Benito County will benefit from some basic training – or re-training – workshops that will guide existing or aspiring community nonprofit organizations to function more efficiently and collaborate on the development of the public planning process necessary to achieve the expected outcome of a successful community development project that will be of maximum public benefit sustainable on a long term basis.

Every nonprofit organization should meet regularly and challenge themselves – for the good of the community they serve – to operate efficiently and professionally in order to stay in business and address ever evolving: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats that may help or hinder the viability of the organization. Too often, nonprofit directors serve on boards for far too long because of pride, ego or a sense of proprietary elitism to the detriment of the entire organization and the public it purports to serve.


– Michael Smith – past president and co-founder of the San Benito Stage Company, past president and co-founder of the San Benito Arts Council, former San Benito County Planning Commissioner.

Michael Smith

Pro-economic growth, pro-music, pro-science, pro-retirement.