In the course of my nonprofit board involvement over the past few years a recurring theme has come up again and again—the pull between creation and maintenance.
Whether you’re talking about creating entirely new ventures or simply starting a new initiative within an existing organization, my experience has so far told me that creation tends to be easier that maintenance. What I mean is that it’s easier to start things than it is to continue them—yet the difficulty of continuing, of the maintenance of efforts, initiatives, and programs, is almost universally downplayed either explicitly or implicitly.
Creation is relatively easy because ideas are cheap, whereas maintenance is difficult because execution is costly. It requires a larger and coherent strategy for overall activity. It requires consistent and unrelenting effort. And it tends to require sensitivity to the accretions that define an institution’s past—whether healthy or harmful.
One nonprofit I love is The Nittany Valley Society, still in startup mode. It’s easily the most fun and rewarding board experience I’ve had. We’re creating things like an annual reception, a small publishing imprint, a speaker series, and more. But we’re doing it with the knowledge that we (or future board members) will have to maintain these things, too. It’s important not to build a house that’s bigger or more expensive than you can maintain, and so it is with our nonprofit. It’s why, for instance, we’ve created the Nittany Valley Renaissance Fund as a permanent operational endowment in only our second year. If there’s money in the bank, you stay in business—maintenance is easier when there are funds for the future.
The Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute, on the other hand, has been another experience entirely. Founded in 1850, it’s a very old institution, but one struggling from increased competition (a good sign of the health of the wider community) and sagging under the weight of capital costs, deferred maintenance, and other issues. The Philopatrian, despite its great age, has no operational endowment. This fact has led over recent decades to difficult choices for board members working in good faith to maintain what earlier eras created. It’s an issue I hope to tackle in the year to come.
What am I saying? I’m saying that both creation and maintenance should both be on the minds of any board member looking to create resilient institutions with lasting impact.