The Mission & Work of Management Support Organizations

(This is Part 2 of a 4-part article. Head here to start with Part 1.)

One thing is clear in speaking with leaders of Management Support Organizations of all kinds; they may have the potential to be catalysts for building extraordinary communities, but that is not how they are currently operating.

As we consider the complex role of Management Support Organizations, let’s first examine the workings of a simpler organization – one with which almost all of us are familiar.  Let’s consider a hypothetical Food Bank.

The XYZ Food Bank’s programs and mission are traditional and very narrowly focused:

1) XYZ Food Bank’s mission is to provide food for hungry families. They do this by distributing food to other organizations in town, who then distribute that commodity to the families.

2) Having no contact with the families themselves, XYZ Food Bank sees its “clients” as the organizations to whom it provides food. Aside from making sure the food they provide is high quality, XYZ Food Bank spends far more time considering the needs of its client organizations than the needs of the individuals (or the community overall).

3) To help cover their expenses, XYZ Food Bank charges a per pound fee for the food an organization receives.  Smaller and newer organizations typically cannot afford as much food as larger more established organizations, regardless of the number of people served by those newer programs.

4) XYZ Food Bank measures its results by the pounds of food it distributes and the number of organizations that receive that food.  They try to gather data on the number of individuals who ultimately receive the food, to varying degrees of success.

5) XYZ Food Bank is always frustrated with organizations who don’t pick up their food on time,  who don’t return surveys re: numbers of families served, etc..  This has been ongoing for years, with Food Bank staff often heard saying, “We have tried everything, but they won’t change.”

6) XYZ Food Bank’s board and ED have been asked, “In addition to providing the food these individuals clearly need, are you doing anything to proactively address the issue of poverty in your community?” Their answer: “We are the Food Bank. We are about food. Poverty is not our mission.”

(Please note: While XYZ is an amalgam of several Food Banks we have known, the quote in #6 is a real quote by a real Food Bank Board Member. In this century. Really.)

Many Nonprofit Resource Centers will recognize the issues facing XYZ Food Bank. You may have been called in to help such organizations get past some of the issues noted in that list.

But as you think about it, is your Nonprofit Resource Center experiencing those same issues?

1) Does your Nonprofit Resource Center see its primary purpose as providing a commodity – the educational equivalent of providing food to organizations – workshops, individual consultations, etc.?

2) Does your Nonprofit Resource Center focus on the organizations you serve as your “clients?”  Do you spend time discussing how the things you are teaching will affect the individuals served by those organizations, and the community overall?

3) Does your Nonprofit Resource Center charge a membership fee, providing a different level of service to those who can afford the fee vs. others who may be too small or too young to afford it (but may need your services even more)?

4) Does your Nonprofit Resource Center measure its results by counting the number of workshops presented, the number of attendees to those workshops, the number of consulting hours?  (And are they frustrated that they cannot figure out how to measure anything more significant?)

5) Is your Nonprofit Resource Center frustrated that no matter what you teach or what you do, your client organizations’ results in the community do not seem to be improving to any significant degree?

6) If we were to ask your board, “In addition to providing workshops and other educational programs, are you doing anything to proactively build a better community?” would their answer be the Nonprofit Resource Center equivalent of the Food Bank board president who told us, “Our mission isn’t poverty” – perhaps, “Our mission isn’t to build a strong community; it’s to provide workshops.”?

What if it doesn’t have to be this way?

What if being catalysts for creating extraordinary communities was not only the highest potential of a Management Support Organization, but was embodied in the way you did your work every day?

What if that potential was evidenced in the way you created programs, the way you funded those programs, the way you did your planning, the way your board governed the organization, the way you measure success – the way you did everything?

Would you like to know what that would look like in practice?

Find it in Part 3 here!

2 Responses to The Mission & Work of Management Support Organizations

  1. I work at a MSO, and through a year-long strategic planning and outcome management process, we are now tracking our impact on our members, not just the “amount of workshops we present.” For example, we ask at the end of each workshop what they learned, but then, 3-6 months later, ask them again what improvements they made at their organization as a result of the information learned. That’s one example. Another example is we are tracking how much money our members are saving through our group-buying discount programs. In 2008, these programs saved our members over $3 million, which can now go directly to programs, instead of administrative costs (which looks good in funder’s eyes).

    Tracking these outcomes is not an exact science, but the nonprofit sector is slowly learning how to measure their impact, rather than focusing on their outputs. I think this is the type of impact that other MSO’s can use to improve the life of the community.

    Thank you for this series, and I look forward to the final post!

  2. Craig:
    Thank you so much for sharing this. The more MSO’s begin to see what others are doing to measure what matters, the more they will start to experiment themselves.

    The real issue then is not just the measuring, but is first what MSOs are aiming at. When MSOs start digging deeper – aiming their work at the change they have the potential to make in the community (and not just in the client organizations), then magic can happen.

    If you would like to talk with some of the folks who have participated in our immersion course, to see what that difference has looked like, let me know. Or maybe we’ll arrange for a live telechat, where MSO leaders can chat directly with some of those folks. Let me see what we can do to get that going!
    HG