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"Good Horsemanship is Built on Solid Basics...So is Good Business!"

A "Systems" Look At Therapeutic Riding Center Operation
By Lisa Derby Oden

Here's the scenario:
"I currently work for a not-for-profit therapeutic riding center as a
certified instructor and director. The center is struggling badly, and the
board is ineffective. Lately they have been saying they are thinking about
closing the program down. They have not been able to pay me for quite some
time, although I continue to do lessons several days a week. I have been
working with a grant writer for about six months, have submitted seven
proposals for the non-profit, and have been denied funding for all of them.
I own all the program horses and lease them to the non-profit. I also own
all the tack and equipment, and virtually run the program myself doing the
fundraising, marketing, public speaking, etc. The support they provide is
really the use of the center's name and accreditation.
I am considering leaving the non-profit and going out on my own. I have
a location I could start my own therapeutic riding program, and know I will
need to write a business plan as well as formalize by incorporating or
becoming an LLC. My dilemma is this: do I file for non-profit status or do
this for-profit? I spend a considerable amount of time doing fundraising,
volunteer training, etc., and am starting to think all that time could be
better directed into actual teaching time and growth of my own business. How
do I decide whether to stay with the organization I'm with, or to leave them
to start my own non-profit, or go strictly for-profit and forgo the
headaches of a board of directors, fundraising, etc.?"

This scenario poses a complex set of questions. Let's examine them one
at a time.
Question 1: What will it mean to stay with the current non-profit?
This non-profit sounds as though it is a system out of whack, as
evidenced by their consideration to close the program. Problems such as
ineffective board, inability to fundraise, and staff person overtaxed with
most major duties are all linked together as part of the system. To break
the vicious cycle here the focus needs to shift from looking at the program,
to looking at the system. Problems that have built over a period of time and
escalated to these proportions will also take some time to resolve.
This board certainly is having some problems. The desire to close may
be related to a variety of factors. Is the board burned out? Have they been
part of the board for a long time, and so are in need of rejuvenation?
Burnout is common in non-profits. What is the term for board members? How
can the board develop a method for attracting new talent to the board, so
that old board members can rotate off the board? A board retreat is often a
good vehicle to examine issues such as this. A retreat also serves as a
teambuilding tool, providing cohesion between organization seniors and
newcomers. Planned on an annual basis, and in some other location than the
regular meeting spot, it can also interject some fun into the otherwise hard
work of the board.
Is the board overwhelmed because of a lack of successes? Too many
crises? Lack of funding? An important tool to assist with these problems is
strategic planning. This process provides motivation and direction for the
organization. Board and staff are included in this process. By examining
strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to the organization, the
group can map out the means to move forward. It may mean downsizing the
program until a more stable system has a chance to take hold. Strategic
planning is generally most effective when conducted every three to five
years. By establishing long-term goals, actions to achieve the goals are
determined. As these are accomplished, they provide a benchmark of sorts for
the organization to measure and applaud its successes. Non-profits are
always faced with challenges and hard work, as is any business. So it
becomes very important to be able to see what HAS been accomplished as time
Effective boards usually do some of the work of the organization,
though the "heavy lifting" may be responsibility of the director. In order
for the board to be active, their role must be clear to them when they are
asked to be part of the board. Board member responsibilities should be
available as part of the organization policy. Particular skills needed on
the board should be assessed, and then sought out. A gaping hole in any
major skill area will create problems that begin to build, and eventually
become a crisis.
If your board is full of people who believe in the mission but no one
knows how to fundraise or no one is willing to fundraise, this leaves a
tremendous gap. Many organizations require that the board be actively
involved in fundraising. After all, it is the board that bears the fiscal
responsibility for the organization.
There is a delicate balance that needs to be struck between the board
and the staff. The job description and requirements for the staff must be as
clear as the board responsibilities are. Sometimes staffers resist a board
that does some of the work, as it means giving up some control to the board.
Take a look around and you will see some organizations that the board is
very strong, and the staff clearly answers to the board and does it's
bidding. In other circumstances, you will see staff-dominated programs,
where the board serves primarily as back up support. Either system can work,
and either system has its problems. The most important aspect here is that
both board and staff must feel that they are on the same team, working
towards the same goals.
When it comes to grants, this is an important avenue of funding that a
non-profit should not overlook. It is a very competitive process however.
Submitting a proposal the first time around may not yield a grant, but it
often gets you in the ballpark by establishing an awareness of your
organization. The key thing is to find out why the submitted proposals were
not successful. Call the grant maker to find out. You can't really fix a
problem in this area if you don't know what the problem really is. You may
find that you are more successful in future grant rounds.

Question 2: Should a new non-profit be started?
The problems being encountered with the current non-profit are not
uncommon, so starting a new non-profit may mean that eventually these same
problems will surface again. A healthy
non-profit requires vigilant and diligent efforts from both staff and board.
Think of the care and supervision that are provided to the program horses.
Now consider that the organization itself is a living structure. It requires
care and feeding of it's own.
What is given up by leaving the current non-profit? Has the current
program developed name recognition and/or history of service? If these are
favorable in the community, it may be worth the work to rehabilitate the
current non-profit.
Do you have good access to people for the new board that have the
skills you are looking for to develop a healthy organization? Lacking this
resource, and unless the initial plan is for the organization to be
staff-centered, the new non-profit may become lop-sided and out of whack.
Writing a business plan will walk you through brainstorming the management
aspects of a new enterprise.

Question 3: Should the new organization be for-profit instead of non-profit,
so the headaches of board development, fundraising, etc. are avoided?
This decision should be made in part with the assistance of an
accountant and attorney. Prior to that, do a little homework by researching
what it means in real life. Talk to other directors of both for-profits and
non-profits about what they see as pluses and minuses of either operation.
One major area of impact is the revenue stream. Generally speaking,
for-profits generate money by selling their product of service directly to
the customer or client. In the non-profit environment, revenue is received
from a source or variety of sources, and the program or services are
provided to a separate client group. In this fashion, a non-profit has
access to grants and charitable donations that a for-profit doesn't. Many
people give to non-profits not only because of the mission, but also because
the donation is tax deductible. This is not true for donations to a
for-profit. If a for-profit is established, can a fee-for-service be
established for the clients? Do they have the money to pay? Is it perhaps
covered for payment by their insurance?
If your preference is for teaching, be aware that whether you start a
for-profit or a non-profit, you have now entered the realm of management.
Headaches are unavoidable and only shift from one form to another.
Non-profit concerns hinge around board, fundraising, volunteers, public
relations, staff, and program growth issues. For-profit concerns hinge
around cash flow, financing, employees, marketing, and business expansion
issues. Either way, if management is not your thing, your headaches will not
go away.

(Lisa Derby Oden has been providing business development, marketing, and
association consulting services to the horse industry since 1995. Oden is
author of "Growing Your Horse Business" and "Bang For Your Buck: Making
$ense of Marketing For Your Horse Business." She is the 1999 AHC Van Ness
Award recipient for outstanding service to the horse industry. She can be
reached at: (603)878-1694; email at; or visit her
website at

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