In 2005, about 50,000 groups earned IRS-designated nonprofit status. About 1,000 of those fail every year. The failure rate for nonprofits isn’t as high as businesses, which routinely hovers around 70% over three years. But nonprofits face a different set of challenges. When a nonprofit starts and succeeds, it’s often attributable to the tenacity and rigorous leadership of its board.
“The board makeup is critical,” says Mike Hurst. Hurst is one of the early board members for Susie’s Place Child Advocacy Centers. “In 2009, Susie’s Place was one location in Avon, Indiana. In those early days, we were functioning a lot like a startup,” says Hurst.
Most people hear the word “startup” and get the impression of a small tech company with glass walls and a ping-pong table in the corner. At the time, Susie’s Place didn’t have a ping-pong table, nor do they today. They also didn’t have much staff, any medical or mental health treatment facilities, therapy dogs, prevention programs, or more than a few weeks’ worth of money in the bank. “It seems like we were never caught-up early on,” says Hurst.
Today, with three locations and a host of prevention and intervention services, Susie’s Place is a model for child advocacy centers and nonprofits across the country.
“You have to have the right people lead it,” says Hurst. “You need people with good business and financial management understanding, some with comfort in fundraising, and a combination of expertise in things like accounting and law.”
Looking back, Hurst says the initial board was too small — a common issue for new nonprofits. “We had great people, but nonprofits rely on them a lot,” says Hurst, adding, “And the more members you have it eases the load is for the rest of the board and the organization.
Wes Mantooth came to the Susie’s Place board in 2016. In his relatively short tenure, he’s come away impressed with the on-the-ground leadership. “I’m not sure I’ve ever been associated with any organization of any size and purpose that has the leadership that Susie’s Place has. Emily [Perry] and Lynn [Clinton] are phenomenal. They are remarkably involved, and the sacrifices they make are amazing. That has a huge impact on the success of Susie’s Place,” says Mantooth.
Before an organization runs out to load up on board members, Mantooth suggests new nonprofits avoid seeking board members specifically for the pure intent of fundraising or potential financial impact. “I think there’s a role for everyone who has a love for an organization,” he says. “Setting up for large events, volunteering, and other fundraising-related capacities are important and helpful.”
Now with three full-time locations serving 35 counties in west-central Indiana, Susie’s Place’s and their board members have developed unique rhythms in each community. Hurst and other board members know they’re all working toward the same goal, but each region has their own personality and local representation on the 12-member board. That personality reflects in their events and fundraising efforts.
As Hurst notes, “What has been successful in Avon hasn’t always had the same impact in Bloomington. Bloomington has a different kind of success in fundraising. Terre Haute is showing us its own kind of rhythm, too.”
In Avon, many local groups spend a lot of time raising money for Susie’s Place. That exists at Susie’s Places’ other locations but is more established in Avon because of the length of time they’ve been there. And many groups exist that specifically want to help groups in their area. For instance, a community foundation may want to keep money inside the county and forego funding groups that support larger regions. “That is part of the maturation of the fundraising,” says Hurst.
Looking ahead, the Board is conducting their annual strategic planning session this summer. “We’re asking ourselves about the size and location of Susie’s Place as always, and about the scope of the mission,” says Hurst. A focus this year is likely to be on furthering abuse prevention programs. “And we’re thinking about endowments and how to become less reliant on government funding,” says Mantooth. Both members agree Susie’s Place still has a long way to long-term financial health.
Regardless of challenges, Susie’s Place has enjoyed a remarkably stable board with an attrition rate of just a few people over nine years. As Hurst explains, “Sitting on this board is the best thing I do. It’s one of the hardest jobs I have.” He adds, “The mission is so critical, and we hear about tough moments in the lives of children. That may make it a little tougher than some nonprofits. There’s always a bit of surprise from new members at the need and complexity of Susie’s Place and criminal justice. But once you get them on board, they stick around.”