Sustainability of a Warrior: How Organizational Planning Can Occur at Unexpected Moments

Steven Green

I am not a sportswriter. Neither was I capable at 6’3” of even making my high school basketball team, despite expectations to the contrary. Still, my affection for basketball leads me to utilize many of the relevant metaphors the sport offers.

In 2015, the Golden State Warriors began their season at 24-0, the best start of any major professional sports team in the country. They ended the season with their second of what would be five straight NBA Finals appearances, an exceptional feat by any standards. Today, their starting line-up — really their entire roster — barely resembles that 2015 roster and is even significantly divergent from their 2018-2019 team. With iconic figures either traded or injured, they are left with a team now known as the “Baby Warriors.” A far cry from four years ago, for the first 24 games played at the start of the 2019-2020 season, the Warriors’ record was a league worst 5-19. With the second half of the season now underway, the team’s current record remains abysmal, looking nothing like it has the last several years.

What can we in philanthropy and the wider nonprofit sector learn from this sports experience? More specifically, what does this tell us about long-term planning? A great deal, I think.

Three years ago, I wrote about how the beauty of team basketball exemplified by the Warriors can be a useful model for thinking about field building. There can be powerful outcomes when one mobilizes people who may be at the table for different reasons but share a common desired outcome. Today, these new Warriors can teach us about never missing an opportunity to plan for sustainability.

Despite the team’s struggles, something special differentiates the Warriors from other teams with losing records. By the beginning of next season, barring any unforeseen circumstances, three of their four perennial All Stars will again be healthy, driven, and playing together (the fourth, Kevin Durant, chose to leave last offseason via free agency). As an organization, the Warriors’ key players are under contract for multiple seasons, providing necessary stability that should help the team regain its championship form. And now, while these All Stars rest and recover, the young second-string players are gaining valuable on-the-court experience and learning on the job — in what could even be called experiential learning — in ways that they were not anticipating before the season started.

As a philanthropic foundation professional for over eight years, I see long-term donor investment and long-term organizational planning (certainly two related actions) as an aspiration that is not always implemented in meaningful ways. Fewer than half of nonprofits have more than three months of cash reserves; close to 10 percent have less than 30 days. Most nonprofits have no endowments, so the day-to-day nature of the organizational structure is a stark reminder that today’s nonprofit may look very different tomorrow.

When I look at this Warriors team, I know that by the measurement of wins and losses, the 2019-2020 season has been underwhelming. In the nonprofit world, we would think about this in terms of a missed short-term objective. Directly related to this current shortcoming, however, is my belief that this season is laying strong foundations for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 seasons to come, thanks to the planning, organization management, and players that management has brought in to be on the team.

Now, let’s bring this scenario back to our nonprofit world. Imagine that not only the CEOs, but the highest quality fundraisers, financial officers, and program professionals all were factored into an organization’s long-term planning. What if all of these employees felt valued and felt that their role with the organization was integral to the organization’s future plans and potential success? A byproduct of this intentional planning would be a sense of security for all the professionals in the organization. How might this influence the pursuits of those professionals?

A fundraising professional, for example, might feel less pressure during an annual campaign or an emergency campaign, and instead have the confidence to explore blue-sky scenarios in which investments are made for the long term. An employee’s sense of security — and faith in the organization’s future — is integral not just for that organization’s ability to plan for the future, but also for the organization’s ability to implement that plan. For many of the organizations with which the Jim Joseph Foundation partners and supports, losing a key member of their professional team — whether C-suite, mid-tier, or more entry level — would have a major impact on their ability to plan and program.

With the Warriors blueprint in mind — being opportunistic, giving young players time to learn, signing key veterans, and more — what can our field do to position organizations for long-term success? I see five key actions:

  1. Invest in professionals for the long term through competitive compensation.
  2. Provide professional development that is not just training staff for what they currently do, but prepares them for what they might be asked to do in the future.
  3. Offer access to conferences and professional learning communities both within and outside of the scope of the organization.
  4. Create a matrix-style organizational structure where each member of the team has opportunities to lead and shine.
  5. Secure operating reserves (and temporary and permanent endowments as possible) in order to ensure lasting fiscal security.

Planning for the short- and long-term can occur simultaneously. Immediate wins can come at the same time an eye is also kept on the future. And, sometimes the opportunity to build for the future happens at unexpected moments. Organizations should be ready to take advantage of those times in their organizational life. I invite others to provide additional ways to create stronger organizational health and security that may be even more forward-thinking than what I’ve included here.

And here’s a final plea: let’s help nonprofits in our community create meaningful legacies. And, when they do this, let’s celebrate their achievements and the “superstars” who made it happen — just as we do with our hometown teams.

Steven Green is senior director, grants management and compliance, at the Jim Joseph Foundation. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at @JimJosephFdn.

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