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Building Momentum for Georgia’s Nonprofits

Momentum isn’t a program, it is a process—a process for strategic change. It is a method to help nonprofits become high performance organizations by changing the ways they construct strategy, make decisions about that strategy, and execute that strategy for powerful results.

Through Momentum, GCN’s goal is to make a truly transformative impact on the ability of Georgia nonprofits to make measurable, sustainable progress in the communities they serve. Now, 18 months into our pilot project, we are seeing clear, substantial evidence of that impact.

In November 2011, GCN launched the Momentum initiative in Georgia’s lower coastal region, in partnership with the Corporation for National Community Service (CNCS) and the St. Marys United Methodist Church (SMUMC) Foundation. Since that time, over 100 local nonprofits have participated in the two-year program, with a group of 25 organizations forming a “core group” that’s undergone a more rigorous training and development process, including:

  • Year-round participation in a progressive series of intensive learning workshops focused on strategy, performance, management, and leadership development.
  • Individual coaching provided by professional consultants, experts in nonprofit capacity building who provide guidance, assistance, and support.
  • Peer learning and networking opportunities that form a cohesive support system of nonprofit leaders.
Watch our mini-documentary, starring the six nonprofits featured here, our funding partners, and GCN’s Karen Beavor and Chris Allers, to learn more about the Momentum process and what it’s done for the coastal cause community.

When we began Momentum, we decided on three principles that would ensure the maximum benefit for participating organizations. First, we had to identify leaders who were genuinely interested in learning how to be better at running nonprofit organizations. Second, we had to create a powerful learning community where individuals could trust each other, where they felt permitted to experiment, and sometimes to fail. And third, we had to provide the best information on nonprofit strategy and operations: material that was both highly usable and directly applicable to each organization. 

In their own words, participants have described the Momentum experience as “game-changing” and “invaluable.” Momentum is more than just a mechanism for increasing knowledge—it also builds hope and strength, by bringing together the cause community to better support each other. Participant Jeff Norris, CEO of Justin’s Miracle Field, probably put it best when he said, “There’s power in numbers, so if you can get nonprofits together, think together, and all attack a problem or issue, typically you’ll get the right answer.”

Results can be seen in the growth of individual participants, the progress of the organizations they represent, and the improving health of the local nonprofit sector as a whole. It has also proven to be a power vehicle for bringing everything GCN does to bear on a community, and a model that can be applied to new communities where nonprofits need to grow their impact.

To get an idea of how Momentum has helped an enormous range of nonprofits—from schools to symphonies to athletic clubs to centers for at-risk youth and beyond—we talked to leaders from six participating nonprofits and our funding partners at CNCS and SMUMC Foundation.

Advance Learning Academy

“When I started this school, I came from an education background instead of a nonprofit background,” said Caroline Fender, founder and ED of Advance Learning Center and Advance Learning Academy in St. Mary’s. She had some administrative experience, but the 19-year veteran of high school teaching had never run an organization before starting a nonprofit for kids, like her son, who were let down by the public school system. “It was a lot of training myself and learning as I went. So the challenges have been [many]—I knew the laws, but I didn’t know how to organize it correctly.” 

Through Momentum, Fender learned that she couldn’t depend on a static business plan—she needed a comprehensive but flexible strategic plan to guide her organization through its inevitable challenges and changes. “I learned that the strategic plan was a work in progress,” she said. “It’s not: make one and put it on a shelf somewhere.” In just one year, Fender has changed the strategic plan twice, and uses it to keep goals front-and-center at every board meeting.

The board itself has also seen major improvements, thanks to coaching from Momentum consultant Cindy Kelley. While teaching Fender how to “work the board,” Kelley also taught the board how to work a nonprofit, through an intensive Board Boot Camp and several on-site sessions that ensured the board understood their responsibilities, Fender’s responsibilities, and how to work better together. “She’s helped them realize they’ve got to help me do the leg work,” said Fender. “They’ve become my helpers instead of just my advisory board.”

Fender also credited earlier and better program improvements to Momentum, which taught them to compile data, analyze their methods, and set concrete goals. “It’s changed the whole organization.”

Justin’s Miracle Field

Part of the Miracle League, a national organization devoted to the idea that “every child deserves the chance to play baseball,” Justin’s Miracle Field is a ballfield with a rubberized surface where children with disabilities—even kids in wheelchairs and walkers—can play baseball. Along with his wife, co-founder and Executive Director Jeff Norris built the field to honor his youngest son, Justin, who was confined to a wheelchair for most of his life but loved baseball more than anything. 

As it turned out, the demand for a Miracle League in Camden County was as big as his son’s love for the game: the venture moved rapidly from construction and fundraising mode to operating as an official 501(c)3 in 2010. The Momentum initiative arrived just in time: Norris characterizes the group up to that point as “nothing but heart and soul,” bursting with enthusiasm and energy but lacking the professional skills and knowledge to run a successful organization. 

Norris’s board has been transformed by the Momentum process: “Engaging the board as a board, instead of just as a group of friends that worked real hard to put a field together, that’s been an extremely rewarding experience for all of us. We’re getting smarter and more efficient. We know what’s expected and what the requirements are.” 

Momentum has also taught the organization that there’s always room to improve: “We’re always learning something,” said Norris, pointing to a new feedback-gathering initiative that’s led to improvements in gameplay, volunteer management, and social media strategy. “There’s always a better way to do everything.”

Safe Harbor Children’s Center

A four-pronged effort to establish safe havens for abused, homeless, or otherwise at-risk children, Safe Harbor Children’s Center provides a shelter, whole-family counseling, “safe place” sanctuaries throughout the community, and in-person outreach on the streets of Glynn County. A 21-year fixture of Brunswick and surrounding areas, Safe Harbor has served more than 4,000 children from all over the state—so it was a surprise when they found out, through a Momentum-led environmental scan, that one of their biggest challenges was a lack of community awareness.

“People knew the name, but not what we did,” said Executive Director Leslie Hartman. With help from Momentum, Hartman and her board came up with a plan to raise awareness: “I am speaking more in the community, at the civic organizations, going back into the schools, trying to really explain what we are. Right now, we’re in the process of having billboards donated. We’re really making our brand.”

Safe Harbor also benefited from board member training, and is currently adding new board members with needed expertise; measurement training, which has given them tools to better monitor and get to the root of challenges facing shelter residents and other beneficiaries; and grant application consulting, which helped them take advantage of a timely funding opportunity. 

Momentum also introduced Hartman to a range of contacts valuable not just for professional support, but for her clients as well: “Just to be in the room with [nonprofits] from our area and surrounding counties, to learn about them, it really was a gift to make those connections. You realize that you’re all struggling, and it brought us together as a community.”

Coastal Youth Symphony

Founded by a few people interested in offering music lessons to Glynn County students, Coastal Youth Symphony (CYS) “just kind of sprang up about five years ago,” according to JoAnne Davis, who has volunteered with the organization since it began. “For years, it has been run with very little structure—we were good people who were just kind of rocking along.” As it grew to include students from outside Glynn, however, the organization wasn’t making the same leaps organizationally: “We didn’t even know there was a next level, until we were asked to join Momentum.”

Performing their first SWOT analysis—assessing Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats—gave CYS a set of goals to work toward and the foundation for a new strategic plan. “Momentum pushed us to think out of the box,” said Davis. “We realized not only did we need to invest in students by providing instruction, but we needed to look at the schools, see who could join in our program.” The collaborative strategies they picked up led to a program called TUTTI—the Italian word for “all together”—that partners CYS with teachers in the Glynn County School System.

Momentum’s focus on practical, hands-on learning made a big impression: “Momentum required us not to just learn on paper, but to develop a real project and then to take it to fruition,” said Davis. By forcing CYS leadership to go through the steps, considering a full range of issues—“How are you going to raise the money? What are the resources you need? What kind of data? How are you going to show improvement?”— Momentum gave them a complete understanding of what it takes to mature as an organization.

Golden Isles Career Academy & Foundation

Rick Townsend, CEO of four-year-old Glynn County charter school Golden Isles Career Academy (GICA), and the foundation that supports it, recalls a point early on in the Momentum process when he was asked if they had a strategic plan: “Oh course we have one,” he recalls saying. “Who doesn’t have a strategic plan?” What he learned from his coach, Chris Allers, was that the strategic plan he had wasn’t working: “[He said] you probably want to come to our class on drafting an effective strategic plan for a foundation, and I did. And I loved it.”

Once he’d worked with Allers and his board to develop a solid strategic plan, Townsend learned to measure progress toward the goals in that plan: “One of the things we thrive on here is teaching work ethic,” said Townsend, noting that most people lose a job because they lack the discipline, not the skills. To that end, Momentum helped GICA develop a research-based method to evaluate individual students’ growth in that critical quality, so the principle that “20% of grades are based on work ethic” can be carried out effectively and consistently.

The GICA Foundation also supports other area nonprofits, and Momentum provided Townsend a valuable opportunity to network with potential partners. They even found a nonprofit to paint their ambulance-turned-broadcast video van, which was too large for their own automotive paint booth. “That’s what it’s all about,” said Townsend, “helping each other.”

Special Olympics Coastal Georgia

With more than 400 athletes of all ages, Special Olympics Coastal Georgia (SOCG) keeps individuals with disabilities throwing, dribbling, bowling, running, rowing, and more in year-round practices and competitions. The constant activity, however, didn’t leave much time for evaluating methods, networking with fellow nonprofits, or developing professionally: “What we’ve learned is that everyone needs to step up to the plate for us to grow,” said Theresa Ellis, SOCG program coordinator. “And for us to have an impact on the community, we need to grow.”

Momentum taught SOCG the importance of measurement in assessing organization progress, and helped them develop a way to evaluate their athletes’ feelings about the program. They had hoped to find a 50% positive reaction, and were delighted when feedback turned out to be upwards of 85% positive. “Now that we have a baseline,” said Ellis, “we’ve really upped our expectations. We’re actually going to be offering more this year, and more on a local level, to impact the greatest number of athletes that we can.”

Ellis was also impressed by the opportunities Momentum provides to meet and learn from other nonprofits: “Being able to meet as we’ve done with other nonprofits, because so many of us are going through the same things, that’s huge,” said Ellis. “I also really like how the sessions were broken out into specific categories, so you know coming up we’re going to be focusing on fundraising, how to meet donors, all those aspects.”

Momentum even helped Ellis with her personal transition from part- to full-time leader: “I can’t say enough about the mentoring program, especially for someone in my position, taking over something that was already started.”

Chris Allers, Ph.D. has served as Momentum lead consultant on the lower coast from its inception in November 2011, and is Georgia Center for Nonprofits’ Executive Vice President, Programs.

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