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Reflections on our Inaugural Grassroots Accelerator Program (GAP) Cohort

Reflections on our Inaugural Grassroots Accelerator Program (GAP) Cohort

Recently, the Catalogue for Philanthropy concluded its inaugural cohort for the Grassroots Accelerator Program (GAP), a six-month program designed to empower leaders of small, local nonprofits with organizational budgets of $250,000 and below. Too often, nonprofits that operate on small budgets with small teams are overlooked when it comes to sharing resources — from gaining information to reaching donors to leveraging funding. When they are directed to capacity-building resources, the recommended practices aren’t usually adapted to be realistic for teams of 1-3 staff members either.

We developed GAP precisely to address this challenge and to increase equity of access to networks, skills, resources, and information for such small nonprofits that would be practical and actionable for them. Through twice-monthly sessions on topics like organizational structure, nonprofit finances, branding, strategic planning, and more, local Executive Director (EDs) engaged in the vital skill-building needed to grow their organizations sustainably in a community of peer leaders.

On the heels of wrapping up our first GAP cohort, we want to reflect on what we’ve learned throughout this process and share more about how participating in this opportunity has made a concrete difference for small, local nonprofit leaders.

1. Gaining new tools and frameworks

One of the elements we were particularly intentional about when creating GAP was ensuring that participants would complete the program armed with relevant and practical tools for success that they felt comfortable using. In addition to providing tangible resources like worksheets, guides, and templates during each session, participants were given a 6-month membership to our digital Learning Commons portal after finishing the program, which aimed to supplement their skill-building with 200+ recorded webinars, downloadable tools, and more on a variety of topics.

At the start of GAP, we decided that if participants put into place one action as a result of each 2-hour session, we would consider it a measure of our success. To our excitement, 100% of participants shared in a post-program survey that they have put into practice something they learned from this cohort. “We now have new helpful frameworks for strategic planning conversations, board management, and board retreats,” one GAP leader told us. “We have new tools to improve the way we do budgeting… (and) a library of helpful information to refer to in the future as the need arises.”

Another GAP leader noted that “Executive Directors of small nonprofits are often expected to wear many hats, but we all have our professional strengths and weaknesses. This program gave me concrete steps — and confidence! — to tackle projects that are not in my ‘wheelhouse’.”

2. Forming new relationships with other small nonprofit leaders

As leaders of small grassroots nonprofits, EDs are usually the only staff member — if not one of the three or fewer staff members — doing all the work. Giving participants the consistent space to connect on challenges that come with having multiple roles, and to celebrate the successes of their organizations, was key to the program’s cohort model design. Week after week, leaders had the chance to both learn alongside each other and connect over small group discussions.

The aspect of the cohort that participants found to be most valuable was that they all lead organizations of the same size. As one participant shared, “I started the nonprofit based on a passion for our mission but never attended business school. As such, some of the hats I wear as an ED feel like they belong on someone else’s head… It has been relieving to listen as others share what it is like for them to carry out and further their missions as similar small fish in a big nonprofit pond.”

Not only were individual relationships formed, but a network of peers was created. Another participant noted that “Prior to participation in this group, I did not know many other founders/executive directors of small nonprofits.” This sentiment was echoed throughout the cohort.

At the completion of this program, 85% of participants strongly agreed or agreed that they built relationships with other participants in the cohort and that, while the group dynamic certainly didn’t fill in for additional staff, it did provide support. As one member said, “It was very comforting to meet other Executive Directors who are also balancing multiple areas of running a business simultaneously.”

3. A deeper understanding of how to strategize more intentionally

Many resources that are offered for small nonprofits typically assume a larger nonprofit size than that of the organizations participating in GAP. When we built this program, we wanted to ensure that:

  • The resources we provided were geared towards grassroots organizations and small teams
  • We comprehensively covered nonprofit management topics from initial development through strategic planning
  • What we shared was actionable and realistic

In designing the program, we shared content that could stand on its own but also fell into sequence with other topics that built on previous knowledge. For example, though conversations about finances might not usually be held at the same time as conversations about people management, we grouped them both in the same month as part of a broader focus on how we manage our resources. During another month, we brought together organizational structure and evaluation under the larger question, “How do you do your work?” As a result, participants were able to focus on those broader questions and on the interconnectedness of each month’s topics while diving deeper into specific areas.

“I have a more cohesive picture of nonprofit management and the specific strengths and weaknesses of our organization,” one leader told us after GAP completed. “Our organization is strategizing more intentionally to focus time and energy on areas that yield the greatest benefits for the nonprofit and recipients.”

The Catalogue is excited to continue iterating and improving on GAP, especially with the knowledge that grassroots organizations can increase their community impact that much more when their leaders feel empowered to grow sustainably.

For more information on GAP, or to stay informed on a future version of this cohort, contact Chiara Banez, our Nonprofit Programs Manager.

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