Natasha Dresner: What's love got to do with it? Plenty


PITTSFIELD -- In my first column, I introduced you to the world of nonprofits here in the Berkshires, and their positive impact on us all. Today, let's look at three specific local nonprofits -- Charley's Fund, Shakespeare & Company, and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Eisner Camp -- as a way of introducing the sine qua non of all successful nonprofits.

They are three very different organizations with three different missions, products and services, constituencies, budgets and funders. What's the one thing they all have in common? Passion. Passion for their missions, and passion for their constituents, products and services. But most of all the passion of their leadership. It is this passion that lies at the core of every successful nonprofit, and serves as the seed from which everything grows.

Passion is contagious, and leads to passion in others. Without it, a great cause becomes just a daunting task, a great mission only a day job. Funders become bad investors, and the people served can become a burden. Passion can move mountains -- otherwise no nonprofit would ever survive the legal process of achieving 501(c)3 status under the Internal Revenue code, which is the most common form of nonprofit organization.

The best way to illustrate this passion is through these five typical stages of nonprofit organizational development.

n The founder stage: Charley's Fund, based in Great Barrington, was founded by a couple to raise funds to fight Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a fatal disease that affects young boys. The passion of two ordinary parents for their extraordinary child who has this illness, his future and the quality of his life is what inspired the creation of the organization that now has an impact on many other children and families who are fighting DMD.

n The managing board stage: The board of directors is formed, and since the new organization can't afford paid staff they are expected to do the work of a professional paid staff. Can you imagine anybody doing that without a passion for the cause?

n The executive director stage: As the organization grows, so does its day-to-day operations, and the board begins to feel some burnout. To address that, the first employee -- usually the executive director or CEO -- is hired. That person becomes the public face of the organization. For example, Shakespeare & Company in Lenox just hired its first executive director in 10 years, Rick Dildene, who will be starting in September, but has already become the public face of the organization. Can you imagine him being successful if he had no passion for the organization and its cause, no matter how knowledgeable or experienced?

n The governing board stage: Now that there is a new "sheriff" in town, the board's style of how it conducts business must change from a managerial one to a governing one. This is not easy, and often causes a lot of tension. Believe it or not, the transition to this stage takes many organizations a long time. Here too you need passion to see you through this long arduous process.

For example, URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington has been a summer home to thousands of youngsters for more than 50 years, and has board members who are former campers, staff, parents, and grandparents whose passion for this camp, its mission and values inspired their continuing involvement and commitment (URJ also runs Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge).

The other staff change: Finally, as the organization enters its next phase of growth, the executive director makes the case for hiring other paid professional(s) who care deeply for the nonprofit's mission.

When you think about your ideal leaders -- volunteer and staff -- their passion for your organization's mission is the only must-have criterion. Money, connections, the right skills and experience for the jobs aren't going to be of much use to you if the person in possession of those attributes doesn't care for your mission.

Go back to the root of your organization -- the very reason for its existence -- and discuss it in a retreat-like setting with board and staff to understand how high or low your leadership is on its most precious possession: passion. And, don't keep the findings to yourself, share them. You post fundraising thermometers to promote and stimulate your efforts, right? Why not post a Passion thermometer for the same reason?

But passion alone is not enough. Look again at the five stages, but now through a different lens -- the ability or inability those same people bring to their organizations, and what effect that has on its success or failure. If it leaves more to be desired, keep reading and look for my next article!

With respect and consideration for all of your hard work.

Natasha Dresner is a nonprofit development consultant and mentor with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam. She can be reached at


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