The One Question That Stumps Most Nonprofits
Imagine you’re a nonprofit consulting/recruiting firm and you get a call from Anna at ABC Nonprofit. Anna would like some help with her nonprofit fundraising plan/strategic plan/board development/wants to hire a new Development Director-all of them, or none of them. She’s not sure. Fundraising isn’t plummeting, but it’s not exactly growing either. She knows something is off, but she’s not sure what it is. Now, you’re a good consultant, and you’ve done your research. You see Anna’s 990 shows the same Board members, same events, foundation gifts, and same programs (more or less) for the last three available years. You talk a little about her (stable) staff and (supportive) Board. She dutifully gives you the right answers about their mission, their current strategic plan, and their moves management system.
So, what’s the problem?
If Anna at ABC is like many nonprofits, she’s going to struggle with the next question; and you should be happy she does, because we're about to save you an hourly consulting fee.
“Imagine I’m a donor who will have my checkbook in front of me for the next 30 seconds. I’m looking to make a $2,000,000 restricted gift, and I’m not interested in naming a building after myself or building up your reserves. Tell me, what would you do with my money?”
Wait, you’re saying, ‘that’s not entirely fair.’ You brought me that beautiful capital campaign literature. You showed me the strategic plan. You need time to talk to the Board and staff. After all, you can’t just unilaterally make up a need for that money right now.
So now, I’m your donor. And I’m uninspired. I put my checkbook away. And it doesn’t matter if that gift was $2 million or $20. Uninspired donors don’t grow an organization. If you don’t have a REAL plan on what you’re doing with the money that I'm already giving you, I’m certainly not going to give you more of it.
That’s the problem with vague strategic plans. That’s the problem with a lack of vision. No one is inspired by “expanding awareness” or “solidifying services.” As a donor, I want you to put yourself out of business eventually: solve homelessness! end epilpsy!; Whatever it is you keep promising donors, I want you to do it, and I want you to tell me how you’re going to do it. But that's not how most planning sessions or strategic plans end up, so where do you even begin to start answering a question like that?
1. Get rid of that long and confusing mission statement. If you can't remember your mission statement, chances are your donors won't either. So make it as succinct as possible. Think of a company mission as a shared endeavor—an ongoing attempt to answer a bold question through collaborative inquiry. A one-sentence statement describing the reason an organization or program exists and used to help guide decisions about priorities, actions, and responsibilities. Many nonprofit mission statements succumb to an over use of words in general. Good mission statements should be clear, memorable and concise. Here are some great examples of good and bad nonprofit mission statements.
2. Force real, hard discussions with your Board, leadership, staff and constituents around short and long term goals. Peter Drucker once said, “We greatly overestimate what we can accomplish in one year. But we greatly underestimate what we can accomplish in five years.” With this in mind, it’s important that your team members are focusing on what they can do now to improve the organization’s impact immediately and in the long run. If particular members are having trouble in this area, it’s a good time to evaluate their priorities and focus on personal improvement through feedback
3. Ban vague goals. You’ve heard it time and again, all goals should be SMART goals. Make sure that all of the goals you create for the organization are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused and Time-bound. Without these crucial elements attached to each goal, you’re pretty much just drawing a map without a legend. In other words: if it can't be quanitifiably measured, it doesn't belong as a strategic goal.
4. Create unifying key messages. Do you ever hold meetings with staff and Board members only to find that half of attendees seem to think that they have something better to do like checking their emails and mentally checking out of your meetings? This is usually a result of attendees not feeling a connection to the intention of the meeting. Relating this back to our fourth bullet point, your key messages should not only be uniting internal staff members to your cause, but also external individuals (think volunteers and donors). You might have content, but you need context to make it all relevant to your stakeholders. And then, make it everyone's mantra.
5. Be honest about competition and similar organizations It’s time to stop acting like you’re the best-kept secret around the neighborhood. There are other organizations that serve the same populations in the same manner. And competition is fierce. Open your eyes wide and take a good look around at other existing entities that could be pulling at YOUR donors, YOUR volunteers and YOUR foundations just because they know what it takes to have a detailed strategic plan. Identifying similar organizations will not only help yours aspire for a greater impact, but will also aid in distinguishing possible weaknesses that can be addressed
6. (Optional) Seek outside help. When you don’t feel like your team is creating effective goals that are moving your organization forward, consider hiring consultants to help guide your team through the process. This is especially beneficial since a consultant will have an unbiased outside perspective and can shed light on any internal issues getting in the way of your organization accomplishing your goals.