The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “infrastructure” as: “The underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization).”

Not particularly alluring.

Programs and services. Working with clients. Effecting change. Now we’re talking. Yet, without effective infrastructure, these are not achievable.

Everything is Interwoven

A few years ago, an esteemed panel of nonprofit professionals speaking at an annual meeting of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits (ACN) shared many worthwhile insights about issues and trends in the nonprofit sector. One in particular that resonated was infrastructure. The point made in the discussion was that, to paraphrase, infrastructure is imperative for mission fulfillment. This hit home for me. One of the main reasons I started Wishnick & Associates was because I wanted to work with nonprofits to increase their capacity in this way.

In my work with clients on strategic planning projects or organizational assessments, I have had several experiences where building the nonprofit’s infrastructure, its operational and management capacities, is the focus. While growth and expansion are galvanizing for boards and chief executives, nonprofits cannot accomplish these without a strong foundation. Highly developed programs and services can only go so far if any aspects of a nonprofit’s infrastructure are less developed.Why? Because all parts of an organization are intertwined. After all, without funding, there wouldn’t be any programs. Without visibility there is limited opportunity to attract clients and funding. Without financial controls, well, let’s not even go there. Without processes and practices, organizations break down. And we haven’t even touched on the human capital – staff and volunteers.

An Analogy

Shining a spotlight on infrastructure is worthwhile. It underscores the importance of focusing on board development, governance, fundraising, strategic planning, finance and accounting, grant writing, marketing, communications, evaluation, volunteer management, operations, human resources, technology, and more. When these critical components are not healthy and well-developed, an organization will falter in achieving its mission.

Let’s use a restaurant as an example. We all have had an experience at a restaurant with a terrific chef, a stunning menu, and a beautiful room that, sadly, had a slow kitchen, a disinterested wait-staff, and—you fill in the blanks. If we think of a restaurant’s desire to serve customers as the mission, the menu/food as the program, and the rest as the infrastructure, we see how critical these elements are to success.

Without a solid infrastructure – a smoothly functioning front of the house, a knowledgeable and dedicated wait staff, smooth processes in the kitchen, the right kind of visibility in the community, and attention to the bottom line – no restaurant will survive. Divine food alone cannot ensure success. If we substitute mission-driven organization for restaurant, and we were donors not diners, we wouldn’t make a second contribution. If we were clients, we might not avail ourselves of the services again. As staff, we may decide to work elsewhere.

What it Takes to Have a Solid Infrastructure

In my experience working with nonprofits in the arts, education, human services, and more – no matter the mission, a solid infrastructure is essential. In addition to a compelling mission and meaningful programs, a nonprofit must have:

  • A current strategic plan to provide direction and assist in making decisions and assessing opportunities;
  • High-caliber staff committed to the mission, who understand their roles and responsibilities, are deployed effectively, and are held accountable;
  • An engaged board of directors that focuses on strong governance, mindful stewardship, strategy, advocacy, resource generation, and more;
  • A clear understanding of what it costs to run the organization and sound financial policies and controls to manage the financial assets;
  • Appropriate technology, systems, and processes to support the work;
  • Targeted marketing and communication to amplify the appropriate messages to varied constituencies;
  • Cohesive fundraising strategies that ensure diverse, robust revenue streams and ongoing support;
  • Appropriate metrics and regular, relevant evaluation to demonstrate outcomes;
  • Articulated advocacy priorities and policy goals and practices.

Do you – as a chief executive or board member – strive to ensure that your nonprofit has all this? Are you actively engaged and sure that the “front of the house” and the “kitchen” are working in tandem so your organization thrives?

Infrastructure. Not sexy. Nonetheless IMPERATIVE.