A couple of years ago, my family and I took a vacation to Chicago. Like most tourists, we walked along Michigan Avenue, enjoying the great food and sights. We also went to the top of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower—a magnificent structure soaring more than 1,400 feet high into the city's skyline.
I don’t have training in construction methods, but I can appreciate what it must take to build such a structure. Even with my limited knowledge, I know that erecting skyscrapers such as the Willis Tower or the John Hancock requires a tremendous amount of expertise, research, and organization.
As I thought about these great buildings, I realized that skyscrapers and nonprofit organizations have several things in common. Nonprofits can benefit from applying these similarities to their own organizations.
1. Building them requires careful planning.
Architects and engineers spend years planning and designing a building before construction begins. From proposal to finish, the Twin Towers in New York City took 14 years to finish.1 Chicago’s John Hancock Center had a 36-month construction period, requiring more than 5 million work-hours.2
Like a well-constructed building, good nonprofit organizations are not started overnight; they require careful research and planning.
This process includes establishing market needs, gaining community support, complying with legal responsibilities, collaborating with existing organizations, and securing leadership and financial support. Skipping any one of these steps could jeopardize the organization’s sustainability and effectiveness.
2. They need deep, solid foundations.
A deep, solid foundation provides stability for the entire building. The depth of a skyscraper’s foundation depends on the type of soil upon which it sits. A lot of skyscrapers have foundations that reach down to solid rock. The Willis Tower in Chicago has a foundation more than 100 feet deep.3 The foundation of the Petronas Towers in Malaysia is almost 400 feet deep.4
A strong nonprofit organization is built upon the foundation of solid leadership and community support.
Board members and executive directors are the pillars of an organization. No matter how slick the website and printed materials look, and no matter how many years it has been in operation, an organization cannot be stable without an active board of directors and a strong leader who is qualified and committed to the cause.
Moreover, no organization can be stable without the financial and emotional support of the community. Since nonprofits are “owned” by the general public, they must have the ongoing support of local leaders, organizations, and individuals to stand strong.
Organizations without solid foundations are easy to spot. They don’t have a clearly articulated mission or vision, they have high employee turnover and an uninvolved board, they chase money rather than focusing on their mission, they don’t have a strategic plan with clear goals and objectives, and they are resistant to self-assessment and accountability.
In the end, a crumbling foundation results in the same outcome for both skyscrapers and organizations. Piece by piece, they fall apart. It starts with a crack here and there, and then evolves into larger splits until finally the entire thing collapses.”
3. They must be able to withstand external forces.
Skyscrapers have to deal with the horizontal force of wind as well as the vertical force of gravity. Engineers purposefully design high-rise buildings to sway back and forth to alleviate the pressure caused by these strong wind flows. This means that on the top, skyscrapers move, but not to the extent to cause permanent deformation of the materials. If they couldn’t move at the top, they would be too rigid, and fracturing of the metal could have devastating results.
Nonprofit organizations must be able to withstand turbulence as well, or they may be destroyed when a major storm hits.
The global pandemic and economic fallout were destructive forces many nonprofits could not withstand. Some of these groups might have survived the storm had they been better prepared. Operating month to month with no savings or relying too heavily on one source of revenue left many organizations unable to continue their operation.
Other forces that have destroyed ill-prepared nonprofits include a sudden, unexpected change in leadership, a highly publicized legal or moral failure, the loss of a major donor, financial mismanagement, a client being hurt or killed while in the agency’s care, a breach of confidentiality, a weather-related disaster, or any other situation that threatens the stability of the organization.
Just like one strong storm with 100-mile-an-hour winds can destroy a building, one powerful force can cripple a vulnerable organization.
4. They should be an asset to their community.
America’s largest skyscrapers house a great diversity of occupants and activities. Many have businesses, condos and apartments, restaurants, retail, parking garages, and other tenants. These complexes generate a lot of revenue for their communities and are often a vital part of the local economy.
Good nonprofits are an asset to their community as well. Their programs and services balance the playing field by providing assistance to vulnerable populations, giving them a chance to succeed.
People are attracted to a region that has outstanding hospitals, colleges and universities, and social service groups. And people generally like to live in a community that has a strong spirit of civic engagement, where residents are eager to help those in need by volunteering their time and resources.
5. They should be prominent in their community.
There’s something captivating about gargantuan buildings that reach into the clouds.
Every year, more than 55 million tourists go to Chicago.5 Although not everyone is enthralled with the buildings, several million visit the city’s famous skyscrapers (Willis, Hancock, Trump, St. Regis).
The Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the tallest building in the world) draws millions of spectators, as do New York’s One World Trade Center and the Empire State Building.
Each of these structures is a well-known landmark that helps identify the city.
No matter their size, nonprofit organizations (and their leaders) should be highly visible in their community.
Larger nonprofits such as hospitals and colleges are usually some of the largest employers in every community. Beyond that, the services provided by all nonprofits—large or small—give them prominence.
In addition, the leaders of nonprofit organizations should be well known and considered experts in their respective fields. They should be prominent individuals, considered by most to be an essential part of the community.
Maybe your nonprofit is housed in a closet-sized room in a basement somewhere, and you find it difficult to think of it as a skyscraper. In fact, you may feel it’s nearly invisible, out of sight to most.
But if you’re a well-grounded organization with a clear focus on accomplishing your mission, you are indeed a skyscraper to those you serve and the community where you operate.
If you have any questions or need assistance, please reach out to a professional at FORVIS or use the Contact Us form below.
- 1“The World Trade Center, by the Numbers,” history.com, September 2, 2021
- 2“Our Story. Not Just Another Tall Tale,” 360chicago.com, 2023
- 3“Foundation Depth of Skyscrapers Around the World,” digthisdesign.net, May 26, 2021
- 4“Petronas Towers: History & Architecture,” study.com, updated February 3, 2023
- 5“Chicago Sets Record Tourism,” themagnificentmileassociation.com