Virtual Idea 2: Exploring the 5 life stages of a nonprofit organization online

When I facilitate strategic planning, board governance, board development, and team building sessions with nonprofit organizations, I often use an activity I developed based on a book entitled The 5 Life Stages of Nonprofit Organizations by Judith Sharken Simon with J. Terence Donovan, published by Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. 2001. Although an older resource, I find it resonates with board and staff, helping them to quickly assess the current situation of their organization and understand each other’s perspective. The activity leads to rich conversations about plans and actions.

I am writing a short series of blogs about the ways I am transforming my favourite facilitation activities to use in a virtual setting. These are the techniques I always have ready to use when appropriate in a group discussion. I want to be prepared to use them quickly and easily in an online meeting. For Virtual Idea 1: Images, see

Using the 5 Life Stages in an in-person session – moving and talking

  • I explain the five life stages, using a handout: Stage 1: Imagine and Inspire, Stage 2: Form and Found, Stage 3 Ground and Grow, Stage 4 Produce and Sustain, Stage 5: Review and Renew. An option of Decline and Dissolution is also included.
  • Using prepared 8 x 11 cardstock, I then place the five stages around the room, either on the floor or the walls.
  • I invite participants to stand by the stage that they think best depicts the current situation of their organization.
  • We then discuss why they selected the stage, what it means for the work they are doing together in the facilitated session, and what directions it suggests.
Participants gathered around life stage cards

Transforming the 5 Life Stages activity to the virtual setting

I plan to introduce the concept of the five life stages using the same information and worksheet as in the in-person sessions. I may send the worksheet in advance to the participants by email.

I will use a prepared whiteboard with the 5 Life Stages and share my screen. Participants will then be invited to use the annotation feature and stamp the stage on the whiteboard.

Whiteboard with the 5 Life Stages

We will then discuss in the main room (plenary group) why they selected the stage and what it means in the same way as we would in an in-person session. We could also discuss in small groups in breakout rooms with short reports in the main room and notes written in the chat area.

This activity is a quick and easy transformation to a virtual meeting which I look forward to using. I think it will be fun for participants to stamp the whiteboard!

Virtual Idea 2: Exploring the 5 life stages of a nonprofit organization online