I chose the word “w(h)ither” in my title very deliberately. It can mean “Where are you going?” It can also mean “Dying on the vine.” Which does it mean for you and your nonprofit?
If the former, where are you going? You’ll find some “To Do’s” in this article to help you on your way towards a sustainable future. If the latter, how can your prevent this from happening? You’ll find some “don’ts” to help you breathe life into your organization.
I’d like to start by recalling an article in Nonprofit Quarterly written in 2008 by Paul Light, a professor of public service at NYU. He speculated four possible futures for the subsidized sector in the US arising out of the recession:
- Rescue Fantasy: nonprofits are saved by significant increases in contributions;
- Withering Winterland: organizations starve themselves into a weakened organizational state;
- Arbritrary Winnowing: survival of the largest, oldest, and best connected organizations; and
- Transformation: a redesign of the sector that leaves it stronger, more vibrant, more sustainable, and more impactful.
At the end of the article, Light predicted that if we let the future take its course it would result in a Withering Winterland or Arbritrary Winnowing and noted that the benefits of transformation could only be reaped by deliberate choice.
Alas, I see too few nonprofits making the deliberate choice towards meaningful, expansive transformation.
Too many are thinking small rather than big. Too many are closing their doors. Others are condensing their services and serving fewer and fewer people. They’re working their staff to the bone, leading to loss of some of the sector’s best talent. The status quo has a choke hold on many of you, and you’re not even aware that slowly but surely all the life is being squeezed out of you.
How does this happen to even the most well-intentioned leaders and nonprofits? Seth Godin recently wrote about the meritocracy trap. It’s a syndrome by which once someone has risen to a certain level, it is assumed they got their solely as a result of merit. Therefore, their ideas must be the best. What they say goes. Somehow, all the external factors that contributed to their success become forgotten. Everyone is content.
Contentment doesn’t breed transformation.
As Godin puts it: The trap is in being satisfied. Satisfaction hardens people to new ideas. It’s why some of the best and the brightest on your staff – new hires – cannot get through to you. Your culture won’t allow it. It’s set in stone. It won’t allow people at the table based on merit anymore. People get to the table based on past histories, connections and networks. They were useful once, so they’re probably useful still. Right?
What worked for you in the past isn’t necessarily working as well, if at all, anymore.
Once cultures and histories (and, let’s face it, founders) become engrained it becomes more and more difficult to reach for the next star. “Look before you leap” becomes just “look” and the fire that was once in the belly begins to burn more dimly. Because it’s still warm, it seems to do the job. Nothing is really wrong, or so it appears. But the passion that once compelled people to join with you begins to get lost. Those who once were hungry to take leaps now are happy to rest on laurels. Everything becomes nice and contained. Doors are not opened. And a darkness begins to creep in.
So what can you do to head towards the light – and life — in 2015?
6 WAYS TO ASSURE YOUR NONPROFIT DOESN”T WITHER
1. Stop Thinking Your Prince Will Come; Wishin’ Won’t Cut it.
Nonprofits commonly tell me “we’re the best kept secret in town.” They believe that if only people knew about them and their work they would begin giving to them in droves. It doesn’t work that way. Even the Prince had to be told about Sleeping Beauty’s plight before he knew to go there and give her “love’s true kiss.”
TO DO: Make this the year of content marketing; Rescue yourself.
I’ll be talking a lot about content marketing in my blog this year. What it is and how to do it effectively. In essence, you’re going to want to put more resources into defining your distinctive, essential mission, and describing it in such a way that people can visualize becoming a part of it. Yes, this is about becoming a consummate storyteller. It’s also about becoming an engaging one. Don’t just read the book to folks; then walk away. Engage with your audience. If you need to be rescued, make it happen by showing folks the danger you’re in. See what they think. Ask them what they believe a happy ending would look like. Show them how to be the hero who gives your story the happy ending.
2. Stop Isolating Yourself; Make New Friends by Embracing Social Media.
As much as donor retention is important – and it is! – donor acquisition is still essential if you don’t want to collapse in on yourself. You’ve got to break out of your current circle of friends. Even though it’s true you can make more money renewing existing donors (and you should probably put 80% of your attention on retention), you soon won’t have anyone to renew if you ignore acquisition. And today’s acquisition is a new game. Direct mail via snail still works, but nowhere near as well as in the past. There’s a new game in town.
TO DO: Make this the year to embrace social media for branding and fundraising.
Nonprofit social media will be another of my themes this year. The digital revolution has changed business as usual, and the nonprofit sector is not immune. Over the past seven years or so technology has revolutionized the fundraising journey. How? It’s dramatically altered the way people first become aware of you, learn more about you, get engaged with you and ultimately decide to become invested. People communicate digitally today, for better or worse. This means you’ve no choice but to learn to use digital effectively. Why? Because it’s one of your best assets for creating awareness of your brand, learning who cares about the values your organization enacts in the world, and finding out more about your would-be supporters.
To maximize the power of digital requires retiring the one-way ‘push’ model of marketing/fundraising. In the past you could define your own brand and sell it. Guess what? The information that only you used to be able to control is now available to everyone online. Everyone has access to information now and chances are good that folks are already two-thirds down the path towards engagement with you before you even know they exist! So you’ve got to think not only about them helping you but about you helping them.
And, by the way, this makes digital media also one of the best assets you have for good stewardship of your donors’ gifts. How? It greatly enhances your ability to communicate — to say thank you, to tell stories, to give good news and to simply stay in touch and show folks you’re thinking about them and that they mean as much to you as you and your cause means to them. So, yes, social media is great for retention too!
3. Don’t Choose Yourself Over Your Donors; Critically Evaluate ‘Sacred Cows.’
Sometimes nonprofits choose themselves (the status quo, the history, the vision of the founder, the tenured staff) instead of the donor (the critical look at whether the impact being made by the ‘sacred cow’ programs is a robust as it could be). Angie Moore wrote a provocative piece this year in Fundraising Success, Sacred Cows: Battling Ourselves, reminding us that just because something has always been done is not a justification for continuing to do it. And it’s not just programs that can become sacred cows. It’s also things like newsletters and annual reports. So how do you find your sacred cows and make intelligent decisions about what to do about them?
TO DO: Make this the year to create a zero-based development (fundraising and marketing combined) plan.
Don’t just tweak what you’ve always been doing. Really ask the hard questions. Who, what, when, where, why and how. Who are your best audiences? When is the best time to engage them? Where do they hang out? Why would they be interested in what you do? How can you connect with them? Review your marketing matrix and determine what phase you need to invest resources in this year. Do you really need to keep spending your time and money making beautiful annual reports? Or would you be better off allocating more of your resources to relationship building in lieu of product development?
While you’re at it, why not make this the year to have your development and marketing departments join forces? Both marketing and development departments are charged with responsibility for creating positive customer experiences. They are both all about constituent engagement. They should be doing it together, not in silos.
4. Don’t Lose Sight of Your Purpose; Stop Getting Lost in the Process.
Cloud-based CRMs. New fundraising databases. Social media. It can be easy to get lost in the process, especially when it’s new and there’s lots to learn. I recently spoke with an organization that had moved their development database manager into the IT department. Why? Because they’d moved the entire organization over to Salesforce and it “didn’t make sense” for development to be “calling the shots when it came to setting up codes and fields that, while they might work best for donor stewardship and analysis, might not be the best solution when it came to meeting the needs of other departments.” Someone in charge there has lost sight of the purpose of a donor database (and, even perhaps, a development department).
TO DO: Ask yourself how much your CEO believes in fundraising; Then deal with the consequences.
Over my 30-year career in the trenches as a development professional I’ve worked with amazing executive directors who truly set the tone for an abiding culture of philanthropy. I’ve also worked with a few who subconsciously thought fundraising was “dirty business.”
For better or worse, corporate culture is a direct reflection of the CEO. He or she sets the tone that everyone else emulates. If you must swim against the tide, you need to develop a lot of strength. If you’re willing to invest in developing that strength, sometimes you can turn the tide. But only sometimes. And you have to be very skilled and very patient. It can work with a CEO, or other top leadership, that truly wants to change. In that case, you have a chance to help reconceptualize the organization’s goals and assist people within the organization to work together to achieve these goals. In my case I couldn’t help those organizations with leaders who weren’t willing to raise funds, so I left.
5. Retire the Overhead Myth; Stop Starving Yourself.
Resist the temptation to starve your organization – and those who rely on you – by focusing too much on your overhead percentage. Overhead measurements standing alone are not good indicators of a charity’s effectiveness. Sometimes you must spend money to make money. And salaries to hire good staff are a legitimate expense. Check out The Overhead Myth and Charitable Giving by Allison Kade.
TO DO: Rededicate yourself to figuring out the many different ways you can show folks the impact of your work.
Tell stories. Show videos. Bring people together for dog and pony shows. If you can demonstrate that spending 25 cents on the dollar cured cancer, when spending 20 cents on the dollar wouldn’t do it, I doubt you’ll get a lot of complaints. Oh, and read this article I wrote on the subject: What Do You Say When Your Donor Asks “How Much Do You Spend on Overhead?”
6. Partner to Solve Problems; Stop Acting in Silos.
Nonprofits often get in their own way. They focus too much on infrastructure; too little on vision. Too many people have an idea of what they want to accomplish, so they start a new nonprofit to accomplish it. They don’t research first to see who else may be addressing this problem. They often don’t even develop a business plan to see if their mission will be sustainable.
TO DO: Develop your BIG idea to inspire others to take a chance with you.
People with track records of investing are sitting on the sidelines waiting for you to do something that, up until now, the social benefit sector has not been doing well. What? Partnering to solve problems that can’t be solved in silos. This is the year to come up with a plan – a BIG idea – to work together with government, businesses and individual philanthropists. This collaborative rather approach is about shared access rather than private ownership. What if you could come up with a way to partner to reach your vision? What if you stopped duplicating infrastructure, creating massive inefficiencies? What if you focused on the long-term goal – ending hunger, ending disease, ending pollution,ending injustice and abuse, etc. – rather than the short-term goal of balancing your budget?
Take a chance. Be a visionary. It’s long been said that people don’t give to organizations (Kay Sprinkel Grace, CFRE, and Hank Rosso have written about this most eloquently). People give through organizations to reach a valued outcome. So what if you banded together with other organizations in your community with similar missions? Wouldn’t it be likely that would-be donor-investors might feel more inclined to support your endeavors? Start by asking how you might address your vision if you began from scratch. How would you organize to solve the problem your organization is seeking to tackle? Forget about your current infrastructure, budget and programs. Remind yourself of why you exist, and what might happen were you to cease to exist. Why is your vision critically important… to your community, your country, the world and to the human race?
Investors want to invest in something that takes their breath away. They seek innovation that changes the game. They want to partner with you to be heroes. Give them the opportunity to do what you both value. Give them the opportunity to meet the need.
The ask is not the end. It’s the beginning. Getting the gift is not the point. Keeping the donor is the point. Focus more on keeping the donor.
The most enduring organizations understand that to bring in major donor investments you need to build relationships. You need to partner. It’s not a transactional process. It’s a transformational process.
Philanthropy is not about money. It’s about investment in values. It’s about love of humankind. It’s about heroism.
In the year ahead, dust off your mission. Make it inspiring. Put in place measurements that demonstrate your impact. Report back to your donors to show them the outcomes they made possible. Revisit your vision, and consider who might partner with you to reach it. Don’t just blindly do things the way you’ve always done them. Be bold, brave and brilliant. And give your supporters the opportunity to be the same.
If you’d like to schedule a free consultation to learn more about how I might be able to help your nonprofit think bigger this year, send me an email at Claire@clairification.com.
Images courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net