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The 3 types of nonprofits: velociraptors, tickbirds, viruses

Many nonprofits blend characteristics of all three organizational approaches to cope with conflicts within their groups and with others.

The three types of nonprofits: velociraptors, tickbirds and viruses
Wikimedia Commons

The nonprofit world divides up into three organizational types: the velociraptor, the tickbird and the virus. (Hey, I’m not making this up. This is according to Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) and Jodi Sandfort, associate professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.)

The velociraptor (the small, meat-eating dinosaur made famous in “Jurassic Park”) is the entrepreneur. It’s nimble, competitive, sees potential and acts quickly.

The tickbird (a bug-eating bird that has a symbiotic relationship with rhinos) could also be called a subcontractor. It’s symbiotic with government: It gets government grants, follows government rules and implements government policies.

The virus is the networker. It moves easily person to person and finds strength in numbers (and gets money from long-term trusting relationships).

Pratt and Sandfort presented this entertaining model last week at MCN’s conference “Practical Leadership: A Balanced Approach.” Thursday’s daylong conference drew hundreds of participants, and they needed a laugh.

Many face tight budgets and growing service demands and worry about upcoming state government unallotments. The conference offered them workshops on everything from “conflict fluency” to stress reducers such as “leadership balance through yoga.”

Pratt and Sandfort said nonprofits tend to blend velociraptor, tickbird and virus approaches. They used the framework to talk about how conflicts arise within and between nonprofit organizations because of different organizational goals. Bottom line, Pratt and Sandfort preferred the virus, or networking, model.

In an interview, Pratt said nonprofits face pressure to choose strategies to get the greatest financial return — which may not be the same thing as addressing the greatest community need.

Nonprofits can use their networks and engage with people locally, “to counterbalance some pressures that may make them look more like Blockbuster Video than a community organization,” he said.

Brand as reputation
One workshop had the velociraptor-sounding title “Internal Brand Building: Align and Differentiate Your Organization.” The basic message from Karl Speak, president of Brand Tool Box Ltd., is that brand is not about marketing programs, logos, ad campaigns, tag lines or snappy slogans. Those are only ways to help you get credit for what your brand really is.

Brand is about consistently delivering something of distinctive value, he said. Brand is about relationships. It is about workplace values. “The brand on the outside can only be as good as the brand on the inside,” he said.

Speak had done pro bono work for the Minnesota Humanities Center. Center President Stanley Romanstein co-presented and said that in 2006, the organization had a weak brand. It hurt fundraising and other opportunities. The organization spent a year with Speak clarifying values so that all staff and board members worked toward the same goals and reputation.

The short version of that work is: The Minnesota Humanities Center uses the humanities “to create the kind of rigorous professional development opportunities for Minnesota’s K-12 educators to make a measurable difference in classroom student achievement and close the achievement gap,” Romanstein said.

The center has enlarged its budget and staff. It has walked away from what Romanstein calls “the tyranny of the $5,000 grant” and now is talking about $500,000 grants and up. The center now works in Omaha, Maine and Florida and has an invitation to work in Kansas.

“We would attribute almost all of it to … attention to brand” and then carrying it forward to the strategic plan, he said.

Contingency plans
Michael Anderson, loan officer for the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, gave a workshop on “Planning for Uncertainty” that walked nonprofit managers through how to create multiple budgets to cope with various budget-cutting scenarios.

It’s better to have Plan B in place before you learn that you need to make cuts, he said. He suggested nonprofit boards review year-to-date budget data every month to stay on top of cost and revenue trends.

Robert Benes, executive director of the Mora-based Lakes & Pines Community Action Council, attended the workshop and had a problem that would be the envy of other participants. He is expecting new federal stimulus revenue for such programs as weatherization and Head Start. Yet he has his own stresses.

The plans are in place and ready to go, but the money has been slow to arrive, he said. That creates a double frustration. On the ground level, they see the growing need and haven’t been able to address it. At a higher level, the stimulus was supposed to be quick and timely and put people to work.

“People are getting further and further behind,” Benes said.

His agency has seen budget cuts in recent years. It has to rebuild its own capacity to run programs. He was starting to think through multiple budget scenarios to make sure he spent the stimulus money as fast as required under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The agency got its first 10 percent of weatherization money about a week ago, he said.