Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

New Thoughts about the Life Cycle of Nonprofits — from Symbiosis to Individuation

There have been many papers written on the life cycle of nonprofit organizations. While there are as many different descriptions of this cycle, most experts agree that a nonprofit organization goes through some maturation process. They eventually either mature, or they are stuck in some dysfunctional stage until they go out of business. Most of these theories are useful in helping organizations articulate where they are and what they could be if they were able to move to the next phase.

In our work in Alaska, we have also developed a theory about the nonprofit life cycle. We are comparing nonprofits to human development, which is not unique, but because of our environment where so many nonprofits have been formed in the past few years, we are living through the large impact founders have on the development of their organization. Therefore, we have developed a model that addresses the founder issue.

The model we use comes from the world of psychology. To be specific, it comes from Margaret Mahler, a neo-Freudian analyst that developed Object Relations, or the theory of Separation/Individuation. We think her insight into how we as humans evolve from symbiosis with our mother to independent autonomous adults, is very much in line with the experience of many nonprofits during their formation. We have found that describing this to our clients helps them to become better centered on their path, and it has also helped many founders let go, in an appropriate way, so their vision can be maintained.

Object Relations Theory

Margaret Mahler was one of the few analysts from Freud’s camp that seemed to discuss our psyche in human terms. Our report cannot adequately describe her theory in detail, but we will provide a basic understanding so you can then understand how this theory can relate to a nonprofit organization’s stages.

The first phase in Mahler’s theory is called Autistic. It lasts from birth to four weeks when the infant sees everything as it itself, and does not differentiate from its environment at all. The next phase, from four weeks to five months, is called Symbiosis. The theory states that we all are not only physically symbiotic with our mothers in the womb, but also psychically symbiotic with our mothers when born. That is why often the mother knows what each sound their infant makes means and how mothers can at times intuit their baby’s needs with no sound. She describes this stage as one where there is no difference from the infant to the mother and while the infant has indeed been born, is totally dependent on its mother for everything, as if it is still in the womb.

The next phase is that of Differentiation goes from five to ten months of age. During this phase the infant starts to see the mother as something different from itself and start on the path to true separation. Next comes the Practicing phase from ten to sixteen months. This phase is best described as the “peek-a-boo” phase. Infants are literally practicing at becoming individuated from the mother with “now you see me, now you don’t.” The next phase is Rapprochement lasting from sixteen to twenty-four months. During this phase a toddler starts to truly emerge from the mother’s psyche through confrontation. This confrontation could be rebelling over being treated too much like a baby one minute, then wanting to be held and cuddled the next. The final phase before individuation is Object Constancy which begins at about twenty-four and lasts though thirty-six months. During this phase the infant starts to internalize its separation from the mother and hold constant with its desire to continue to pursue autonomy. As we all know, it will take us the rest of our lives to get all the way there, and some of us never get there. If our mother refuses to let go, or if we suffer too much trauma during one of these phases, we may become stuck and never fully move on toward healthy maturity.

We have found that this concept of moving from symbiosis toward autonomy has many parallels in the nonprofit world. Depending on the founding, the organization is often symbiotic with its founder. The ongoing success of its mission depends on the founder letting go, and the organization wanting to move on, much like Mahler’s Separation/Individuation Theory where the mother must let go, and the child must continue to want to let go. There is also a comparison that if during the nonprofit life if the progress toward individuation is impacted at the wrong time, the organization could become stuck in one of its phases, and never reach true sustainability.

Our attempt in this paper is to share with you what we think the cycles are, and how organizations can best move toward individuation.

The Life Cycle of a Nonprofit


It seems to matter how nonprofits are conceived. Before you think we have taken our analogy too far, let me explain our logic. Not all foundings are equal. If an organization is founded through a grass roots process, its subsequent development will be different from that of an organization that was founded by an established organization. If an established organization founds a nonprofit, the stages will vary when the founder is from another nonprofit, like a national organization opening a local affiliate, or if the founder is from a for-profit or governmental organization.

In the first scenario, being formed through a grass roots process, we see the most passion. Here the founder(s) sees a need in the community, perceives no one else is dealing with this need, and is so committed to meeting that need, starts to do something about it. We have another name for this type of founder. We call this founder a “Zealot,” since often there is so much passion over this perceived need that a zealot is needed to meet the challenge. It is not the usual the first instinct of such a founder to start an organization. Often, they work informally for some period, and then if their issue develops momentum, they become established. This type of founding has the most passion. It is truly the closest analogy to the conception of a child. We will call this type founding a “Natural Birth.” When a child is conceived with passion, it will likely receive more love and therefore have the asset of feeling wanted. The down side to being founded with so much passion is that at times, the founder/zealot/mother may have a hard time letting go.

The next scenario would be that of a national organization or movement establishing a local affiliation. This type of founding could be similar to an adoption, so we will call this type of founding an “Adoption.” Organizations that are established from a national organization have some advantages. They already have an established program. They will usually have some funding to help build initial capacity. The Adoption founded organization could also have some difficulties. It may take time for it to be accepted by the local community. It may develop an ambivalent relationship with its national or with is other affiliates. The analogy with a human is in line through this Adoption type. While not conceived by the parent, there is still considerable passion in the process of adoption. The parent really wants to have this child. There is real emotion. So most times the child feels wanted. But we have also heard of situations where adopted children experience the love of their adopted parents, but also may want to connect to their birth parent. There can become a disconnect. It seems that many nonprofits from the Adoption type, may have difficulty connecting to their passion and mission, but have all the assets of a natural Birth type organization.

The last founding type we would call “Test Tube Baby.” This would be the organization that a for-profit would establish, such as forming a trade association, or a governmental entity would establish. Either founding group would be usually be establishing the nonprofit to do what it can not due to limitations of their tax status or politics. We see little to no passion in many of these organizations. They seem sterile. On the positive side they are formed with little difficulty. Initial funding is usually secure. Therefore, when they come into existence they may even seem to be super achievers. What seems to happen, however, is that over time many begin to lose steam. This would be comparable to “failure to thrive” syndrome in a child. In reality, these organizations are not really “loved,” like the Natural Birth or Adoption type agencies. Test Tube Babies can survive, and even thrive, but they do have a different process to address in order to find their balance. Another point we would like to stress about nonprofits formed by governmental entities is that when am organization is formed as a “friend”, as many are governmentally formed nonprofits, we rarely see those friends stay friendly forever. One of our slogans is that we have yet to meet a “friend”, developed by a governmental organization, who did not become an “enemy”, since the culture and organizational needs between a nonprofit and a government organization can create friction. Friends can also be established by another nonprofit. We also have seen many of these “friends” turn to enemies, so be forewarned.

The main point of introducing the concept of symbiosis is that when an organization is formed by a grass roots founder, symbiosis is absolute. The organization is the founder and the founder the organization. If this issue is not addressed, and the founder does not understand that his passion is very helpful in setting up the new organization, but could become toxic, at some point, if he does not let go, the organization will be stuck, in one of the next stages we will introduce. It is also good to understand that when an organization is formed by another, there can be much less passion and commitment toward its survival. This lack of passion in the founding of organizations by organizations, that is so apparent in most grass roots foundings, has led many organizations to not thrive.

There is also an observation of a “Born Again” organization. This phenomenon occurs when an individual or group enters a nonprofit with extreme passion for its mission. When this occurs, regardless of the original founding, the organization will take on the developmental characteristics of a “Natural Birth” organization. We recently worked with an organization formed by the state. From its founding, it had been rudderless, lacking focus on its mission and with little to no passion. When it began to melt down, for the fifth time in its six-year history, its CEO decided to do something about it. He attended all available training for himself. He reinvigorated the board and they received training. They developed a focus for the future. They were indeed board again. They even changed their name to reflect this new focus and energy. Since they would only be in the early stages on their new incarnation, it is too early to predict if the re-birth will hold, but it is a good example of this born again phenomenon.

The Stages of Separation/Individuation for Nonprofits

Conception is a pre-stage for our description of nonprofit development. The stages we will describe are:

  • Birth — Relating to Mahler’s Autistic/Symbiosis Phases
  • Infancy — Relation to Differentiation through Practicing Phases
  • Toddler — Relating to Rapprochement through Object Constancy Phases
  • Latency — Mahler used this stage to describe a child from 5-10
  • Adolescence — Mahler suggested that teens go through a modified Rapprochement and Object Constancy Phase
  • Adulthood — Hopefully we are individuated

The traditional model of nonprofit development, while different, mirrors our model with some degree of consistence, but uses more organizational language. Outlined below is the traditional model:

  • Founding Stage — This related to our Conception through Birth Stages. In the traditional model this stage describes the perceived need, the legal establishment, and the initial board recruitment.
  • Sustaining Stage — This would relate to our Infancy though Latency Stages. In the traditional model there is an assumption that the organization can move with some ease from founding to sustaining. This is where or model does have some different thought.
  • Crisis-1st & 2nd Phases — These would relate to our Adolescent Phase, where we think that there can be multiple crises or no crises for the organization, similar to human adolescence, either it’s a smooth transition or not.
  • Governance Stage — This would of course relate to our Adult Stage. However, like many adults, progress is not linear and many thinks can happen to stop progress or even to have a regression. This is where the traditional model has some advantages as you can see from their next Stages.
  • Ho-hum Stage — The board and staff become too complacent, lose energy and passion.
  • Renaissance Stage — The board is “born again” as described in our model.
  • High Performing — We utilize the concept of High Performing in our model, but rather than seeing it as a stage, we see it as the ability of organizations in adulthood, to enhance their ability and live life to its fullest. It is true enlightenment for a nonprofit. When an organization becomes wise and sustainable, it is high performing.


Before this phase, during conception, a need is identified. During Conception the organization is informal. There is usually no paid staff support and the founder is working as a volunteer. Even when n an organization is founded by another organization, like our Adoption or Test Tube model, staff is doing the founding in addition to their ongoing job. Conception continues until the founder decides they need formal structure. That is what we would call Birth.

During this stage the founder finds a few friends to become the organization board, typically three individuals are required in most states to incorporate a nonprofit organization. In order to incorporate, the founding board must also establish Bylaws and determine if they want federal recognition with a not-for-profit tax code.

There is often great excitement and anticipation during Birth, not to lose the analogy of a real birth. In line with that analogy, the birth of a nonprofit can be a beautiful experience, but it is also a messy experience and often there’s pain. Birth is a necessary step however, regardless of the obstacles.


As soon as the organization is established, it has its founding board, it is incorporated with Bylaws, and it has a tax status, it moves into Infancy. During this stage a nonprofit starts to formalize its board. The founding members add additional members as their Bylaws require a get about the business of fulfilling the mission the founders envisioned. Typically an organization during this stage has no staff. The founder and the new board and volunteers are running the organization on zeal. During this phase, the founder is symbiotic with the organization. The founder’s energy is imperative to keeping the organization going the direction envisioned. Infancy will continue until the founder and the board start to run out of steam and decide they need to pay someone to help out, and then move to the next stage.


When a staff is hired the agency runs into its first confrontational stage. While Conception, Birth, and Infancy can have difficulty, most often because of adrenalin, they create little pain. Toddler stage is different. If there is no pain during this stage, something could be wrong. The reason for this pain is that during this stage, staff is added. When staff is added, boundaries are tested for the first time and just like a toddler in the “terrible two’s”, there can be yelling, tantrums, hurt feelings and ambivalence for all to handle. This boundary confusion happens during this stage because the founder is still symbiotic with the organization, and starts to lose control when staff is added. We’ve seen this manifest in two ways. The first is when the founder decides to be the first staff member. Typically this will mean the founder leaves the board and has a new role, that of a partner to the board, rather than the “supreme commander”. Many founders have difficulty with this role change. The other way the boundaries get confused is when the board hires an outside staff member. Even if neither the founder, nor any of the founding board becomes the first staff, they often are reluctant to adequately empower the new staff to do the job. Either scenario creates friction or behavior, comparable to that of a toddler with a mother can be seen.


In child development, latency is the period when a child reaches some equilibrium. It becomes less dependent on the mother, it is working to find its own identity and it is busy developing its capacity. The same is true with nonprofits in Latency. Organizations reach this stage when the boundaries are established, the staff understands and manages its role, and the same is true for the board. The founder may still be involved, but has reached some level of comfort in the direction of the organization. For a parent, latency is often a time of relative peace and quiet. The same is true in a nonprofit organization. However, most parents understand that while their child is in a calm phase from 5 five until about ten or eleven, they also know what’s next, adolescence!


Adolescence has been described as the period in life where the child finally breaks its dependency on its parent and moves closer to full adulthood. For most of us, this is not a very quiet, calm time. Our emotions are extreme; those around us seem to not know what we need to be happy. We don’t really know what we need to be happy. There are good periods, but most times those are followed by not so good periods. This kind of tension happens on purpose. When there is not rebellion during adolescence, often the child never really reaches full autonomy. Mahler stated that adolescents go back through Rapprochement and Object Constancy during adolescence, preparing for the final separation.

In humans, adolescence is emotional, but we can literally observe adolescence. Rapid growth, adult characteristics, and changing social behavior alert us to when someone is preceding though adolescence. The same is true with nonprofit organizations. Organizations get no pimples, but the reach Adolescence when the founder is trying to leave, is being asked to leave, or has gone unexpectedly. Any of the before mentioned occurrences will set the organization into its next period of confrontation. Many individuals involved during this stage are hyper-emotional. Often the organization goes from one crisis to another. The reason is that the institutional memory, the founder, is leaving the picture. It has to happen. No organization will reach full maturity until the founder leaves. Just like an adolescent, the process of reaching maturity may not be fun, but it is necessary if we are to move to the stage we call Adult.


When the founder has gone, the organization has reached adulthood. Just like with humans, reaching the legal status of adulthood does not mean you’re grown-up, and the same is true with nonprofits. Some characteristics of Adult nonprofits would be that the founder has gone, if not in body the founder has indeed “let go” of their symbiosis. Other characteristics are that there is an established board and staff who have reached some level of balance. The organization is focused on its mission, and baring major catastrophe, the organization is fulfilling the vision of its founder.

There are some occurrences that can put such an organization into a regressive state. If there is a financial crisis, or if there is a large turnover on the board, or if a key staff member has left, and the board has not reached the status a High Performing, the organization can rapidly regress to an earlier stage. Most nonprofits we see are in the stage of Adult as we have described here. In addition, while Adult is a better place to be than any of the proceeding stages, it is not the ultimate in organizational maturity. In order to get to that place, organizations, like humans must find enlightenment. Humans often find enlightenment in higher education, religion, the arts, and philanthropy. Organizations reach enlightenment when they have High Performing Boards.

High Performing Boards

A high performing board is one that has seven characteristics. We will describe this in more detail in another paper. However, for now we will describe the characteristics of a High Performing Board, or organization. The characteristics are:

  1. While boards have many roles and responsibilities, high performing board focus on what matters most. These are planning, defining and monitoring agency effectiveness, ensuring financial solvency, support CEO, and improving the board.
  2. It focuses it energies on what matters most through having a 12-18 month plan.
  3. Align committees toward the plan and have fewer committees.
  4. Define a few matrixes to measure success.
  5. Use meetings for discussion, not reports.
  6. Create a climate of healthy dissent.
  7. Have a committee focused on improvement of the board.