A big shout out to the woman, now in her tenth decade, I met recently in Victoria BC. We were sitting on wooden chairs outside a downtown coffee shop waiting for the Island shuttle that would take us north. She was going to visit her daughter. I had just attended a cultural nonprofit conference and was heading home. Sidewalk trees filtered October mid-day sun and small leaves drifted down around us as we talked about the glorious day.

I would like to think of her as my new friend, but it would be presumptuous and I didn’t get her name. She asked me about my family and about the conference. Nothing specific, just chatting.

Everyone has their own take on conferences. I’m a reluctant conference goer. I usually balk at the time and money when weighing my options. Nevertheless, for this conference, the pros outweighed the cons. I’d reconnect with people I know and meet other people for the first time. I’d hear other perspectives that would broaden my thinking and help with decisions.

A few hours into the conference sessions, I’d realized the most important things that I’d packed for the trip were questions over which I’ve been mulling about how to measure nonprofit growth and success and how to know when to move forward. From large provincial organizations to smaller community organizations–what were the common denominators around successful growth and making decisions about when to grow?

When people ask when and how to begin moving from an all-volunteer operation to hiring full time staff, what’s the best advice? When questions come up about funding, what’s the best way to talk about how to proceed? As the conference progressed and as I listened, the words, “incremental growth” wove their way through presentations. ”Step by step” seemed to be in every theme. Moreover, I’ve experienced it. I know that “little by little” works.

Earlier that morning, at breakfast before the keynote speaker, growth and change in the nonprofit cultural sector had come up when colleagues from a community museum and I sat together and discussed hiring staff, growing a budget and heading towards more sustainable community relevance–common challenges for nonprofits.

Funding and staffing don’t happen all at once–it’s gradual. It’s not a mountain you can scale in a day or a year. Growth builds upon others’ accomplishments, sets a path for today and creates the next generation’s foundation.

There are challenges to face along this path and lessons to learn. Some are rewarding. Others, we could all do without. Along the way, you learn what does and doesn’t work. And there are opportunities to understand each other, to converse, to learn from and teach one another.

Taking steps forward achieves distance. Opportunities arise to reassess landscapes around us as we progress. Nonprofit growth has to do with how we’ve decided to proceed in the world as individuals and as organizational leaders.

I didn’t go into much detail about the conference with my new friend as we sat outside the coffee shop. We mainly talked about how comfortable the hotel was and about her daily walks along the shoreline paths. To me, in this short time, she was beautiful–inside and out. I mentioned how much I liked Victoria. She volunteered, “I was born in Victoria and have lived here all my life. I’m ninety-five years old.”

I asked her the usual, “You’ve seen a lot of changes haven’t you? She didn’t shake her head, sigh and lament about the by-gone days. Her response, chin up, was, “Yes I’ve seen a lot of changes and, as far as I’m concerned, every one of them has been good. Because they’re all movement forward. Sometimes it’s not perfect and sometimes it’s a mistake but we learn from it and keep moving forward. ”

So here I was, rounding up my thoughts on the conference experience, listening to an important expert nailing the effectiveness of incremental change.

In the short time we spent before the shuttle arrived, this extraordinary conference closer, without my even asking her the questions I was tempted to ask about longevity, health and perseverance, looked me in the eye and volunteered , “The secret is that we all have to keep moving forward and to understand things as we move along.”

The shuttle arrived and we got up to leave. “I understand what you’re saying.” I said. She smiled at me as we started to move towards the van, “Oh, you might think you know now, but wait until you’re my age. We just have to keep moving ahead.”

As we settled into our seats for the commute, I didn’t have a chance to talk to her further. However, this fortuitous conference “wrap-up” from a wonderful authority confirmed what I had been contemplating throughout the conference. It doesn’t matter at what stage we, or the organizations with which we work, might be. The best advice is to keep moving ahead.

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