Tag Archives: boards

Preparing for your Capital Campaign-Asking the right questions

ChangeA capital campaign – or any other quantum leap in your fundraising – will pull at every fiber of your nonprofit. These are not “business as usual” activities. If you want to grow from one level of donated revenue to another you have to do things differently. It’s no different than a business seeking to enter a new market or release a new product. New, more and different thinking, actions and people are required for new, more and different results.

We know this means more work for nonprofits that are often already operating beyond capacity. But you have to find a way to operate differently if you want different results. We are not saying that everything has to change all at once, but the rate at which you engage potential donors and funders is the rate at which you will begin to see a change in revenue.

Change can begin with an honest assessment of the road ahead. Your institution may need to raise money for new facilities or technologies. Your nonprofit may need to replace a government contract or grant that won’t be renewed. In these examples the first step is to identify the amount of money that needs to be raised. This is the starting point for an important organizational conversation. For too many nonprofits, it is also the end point.

Knowing what you need to raise is not enough. What needs to take place is a conversation about “how” the money will be raised, and what it will cost. Fundraising costs include money, time, talent and resources. You can hire a fundraising consultant to talk with your leadership team, or you can begin the conversation on your own. Questions to discuss include: Where will the money come from?  Who could provide how much? Can we identify three-times as many potential donors as we will need to meet our goal? Why would a donor or funder want to give? Who would ask them to give? How will we organize ourselves? Who will manage and coordinate our fundraising? What resources will he have available? How will a capital campaign impact our annual fundraising? How will we sustain and grow our current donors while attracting new ones? What new policies are needed? What impact will new buildings or technologies have on our operating budget? How will we budget to maintain these?

Open and honest conversations can be both sobering and revealing. Most importantly they contribute to organizational and financial health. They are an opportunity to candidly assess your capabilities and options before launching into a major campaign. When successful a capital campaign – or any quantum leap in your fundraising – will have a major impact on the life of your nonprofit: you will have the funds you need to deliver on your mission and expand your impact.

Mel and Pearl Shaw are the authors of “Prerequisites for Fundraising Success” and “The Fundraiser’s Guide to Soliciting Gifts.”  They provide fundraising counsel to nonprofits. Visit them at www.saadandshaw.com. Follow them @saadshaw.


Where’s the Money?

Fundraising is to nonprofits what sales is to business. It’s where the money comes from. In business the sales team secures revenue to cover expenses and generate a profit for shareholders. In nonprofits it is the fundraising team that raises the – money you need to deliver on your mission.

For example, increasing the number of local residents qualified to fill current, local job openings requires resources – including money. Partnerships with government agencies and businesses can provide resources needed to fulfill this mission, but money is also needed. The question for nonprofit leaders – both staff and board members – becomes “where will the money come from?”

Staying focused on why funds are needed is one way to change your relationship to fundraising. It is not about begging. It’s about making a clear case for why an individual, foundation or corporation should give to your organization. You need to know how much money your organization is seeking to raise, how it will be used, and what the impact will be.

Back to our example: if your organization seeks to prepare 100 young adults a year with the skills required to obtain a living wage job, you will need to be able to communicate what it costs to operate the program; which employers you are partnering with; what types of jobs you are preparing your students for; and what it will mean for each student, their family and the local economy when your students are employed.

You don’t have to come up with these answers on your own. You – as a board member – can help create a culture that encourages your fellow board members – and staff – to bring fundraising into the center of most conversations and activities. Here are a few examples.

When programs are discussed consider asking: how much does it cost to operate this program? Where does the money come from? Are we on track to secure the needed funds for this year? How can I help make sure we reach our goal? Can I accompany our director to meet with current or prospective funders?

Raise these questions in a spirit of open inquiry and wanting to be part of the solution. They can open the door to meaningful activities. For example, if you want to go with the director to visit a donor, staff will need to help get you prepared. This will create an awareness within staff about what board members need in order to be effective advocates and solicitors. Providing board members with information and materials that support fundraising, can help reduce board members’ reluctance to fundraise. Talking about the realities of how much money you need and where it is coming from (or not coming from!) brings board members into the process of securing the resources needed to deliver on your mission. And, at the end of the day, that is what fundraising is about. You can make a difference.

Stop. Look. Listen.

A program for board chairs, executive directors, college presidents, directors, and CEOs.

Volunteers are the heart and soul of your nonprofit. Even if you have a large staff. At the end of the day, volunteers can take you to places you haven’t even dreamed of.  Our “stop, look and listen” program can help unleash the creativity and power of your volunteers.

Stop. Take time to get to know the people who volunteer with your organization. By volunteers we mean all volunteers, not just board members. For example, look at who donates food, who makes sure your gala runs like clock-work, the men who provide security for evening meetings, and the college students who serve as mentors.  Stop and visit with each, one-on-one. Learn their passions. Listen to what they have accomplished in their personal and professional lives. Seek to gain an understanding of their impact, their likes, and where they want to go personally and professionally.

Getting to know the people who invest their time in your institution will pay dividends for years. Here’s a truth – most people who volunteer have lots of ideas about how things could be improved. Most are not shared in open meetings. They are shared one-on-one. When you are the person they share their opinions with, you can help blend them into your vision, making it more powerful; or help it come to life in a better way. The opinions may be about how a program is run; about another organization you can collaborate with; or a business looking for a nonprofit to partner with.

But, you won’t know until you take time to develop relationships. For example, when you have coffee with Mary, briefly share your vision and then ask for feedback. Stop talking. Listen to what she thinks, how she sees things, her ideas, and how she can help. As you listen to how your volunteers respond to your vision, you will find they are a gold mine of ideas and resources. But first, they have to buy into your vision. And they can’t do that if they don’t know you.

Here’s another tip: Don’t let stereotypes cloud your thinking. For example, you may think the board member who is a vice president at the local bank can be of greatest assistance, but, maybe it’s the long-term volunteer for your annual dinner. She may know everyone and be able to open doors you didn’t know were there.

As you look around you will see that your organization is rich in connections and relationships. If you show that you care and are willing to reach out, most people will reach back.

Your volunteers are your most precious asset. Take the time to stop, look and listen. Your organization will go far.

Reduce your fundraising stress

If you are responsible for fundraising for a nonprofit you know the meaning of the word stress. It comes with the job. Too often the pressure is on you – and you alone – to ensure fundraising goals are met. You may be a Vice President for Advancement for Advancement with a college, a development coordinator for a local theatre, or the CEO of a national organization. All feel the pressure.

Here is a way to reduce your fundraising stress: build a corps of fundraising volunteers. Engage your board members – one at a time – asking for help with fundraising. You can see changes by the fall.

Week One. Think about who is on your board. Who is most engaged? Attends meetings regularly? Asks meaningful questions? Who gives a meaningful gift each year? Write down the names that come to mind.

Week Two. Set a meeting with each board member who came to mind during week one.  Set it for week three. Write up your fundraising priorities for the balance of the year. How much you have to raise, and what the funds will be used for. Write up where you believe the money will come from. Are you expecting revenue from a special event? One or two grants? Gifts from individuals? Your new online giving program? Direct mail? Write down the amount you expect from each source; the names of individuals, foundations or corporations you believe will give; and dates of special events, or when your direct mail is scheduled to drop.

Week Three. Meet individually with each of the board members you identified in step one. Let’s say the first person you meet with is named Elaine. Share with Elaine the information you wrote down during week two. Share how you plan on pursuing these funds. Ask “what are your thoughts?” Do you think we can reach our goals? What am I not seeing?” Listen for her response. Ask another question, “Elaine, would you be willing to help with one of these projects?” Don’t rush to fill the silence. Listen. Elaine may say yes, or she may say no. But, you have just asked her to help solve “your” problem and in most cases she will offer suggestions for how she can assist, or other ways that you can proceed. Take notes.

Week Four. Write to Elaine and follow up on your meeting. Thank her for her time and for her suggestions. If she made specific suggestions for how she can help, include these in your email or letter. Ask if there is someone outside of the board she would like to involve in her project. Let her know you are available to support her.

Try it and see. Let us know what happens.

Know Your Legal Responsibilities

You may not be a lawyer, but you should know your non-profit related legal responsibilities…

What legal issues should you be aware of regarding your involvement with non-profit organizations? Wanting to provide executive directors, board members, employees and volunteers with information, we talked with Mr. Van Turner a partner in the law firm of BRITTENUM BRUCE, pllc (“Brittenum Bruce”). Mr. Turner’s law practice is concentrated in the areas of business and commercial litigation, business transactions, government relations, municipal law, and estate planning. Most importantly he is also an experienced board member.

Understanding that no interview can take the place of legal counsel, we asked Mr. Turner to help provide a high-level overview of the types of legal issues that can emerge within the non-profit sector. We started at the beginning, asking Turner what it means to be a “501 c 3” organization and what it takes to start one, and we continued with questions about managing endowments, fiduciary responsibilities, taxes, and who is “really in charge” – the board or the executive director.

Our interview is below, followed by more information about Attorney Turner.

Saad & Shaw: Let’s start at the beginning. What does it really mean when an organization is a nonprofit organization? What is a “501 c 3” organization?

Attorney Turner: A nonprofit association is a corporation or corporate entity which is not primarily organized to make a profit. In fact, nonprofits are organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, or educational purposes. The “501 c 3” language comes from the United States Internal Revenue Code and section which defines the types of organizations which are exempt from federal income taxes. In essence, for profit corporations must pay federal income taxes and nonprofit corporations do not have to pay federal income taxes.

Saad & Shaw: Related to that, what does it take to start a non-profit?

Attorney Turner:In order to start a nonprofit, an individual must first complete and file a 1023 Form with the IRS. One must also file the Articles of Incorporation with the Secretary of State in which the company will be headquartered, form a board of directors to govern the company and develop by-laws to govern the board of directors.

Saad & Shaw: What about the board of directors? What are the legal responsibilities of the board of directors? What is their role? Do they run the organization or does the executive director or CEO?

Attorney Turner: The board of directors has a fiduciary obligation to the organization. The legal definition of fiduciary is a person or entity entrusted with the duty to act for the benefit of someone else or something else. A person acting in a fiduciary role must exercise a high degree of care and must subordinate his or her own personal interests in the event that there is a conflict. While the executive director may handle the day to day obligations of the nonprofit, ultimately, the legal responsibility for the organization lies with the board of directors. For example, if the board must decide between what the executive director wants to do and what is in the best interest of the nonprofit, the board has a responsibility to do what is best for the nonprofit.

Saad & Shaw: What should the leadership of a non-profit be aware of when it comes to entering into contracts for goods, services and/or property?

Attorney Turner: The leadership should be aware that he or she is an agent for the nonprofit when entering into contracts. If the board of directors allows the leadership or the officers to negotiate and handle contracts, then everyone must understand that the executive director is binding the nonprofit to the deal. Therefore, if the board later decides that the contract is not good, they cannot come back and rescind the contract without a validly legal reason. The board of directors must make it clear in the by-laws whether it wants to approve every contract or allow the leadership to handle the contracts without board approval. What I usually see is that the board allows the leadership to contract up to a set amount and anything above that amount must be approved by the board.

Saad & Shaw: What about financial management? Are there specific oversights, policies or procedures that need to be in place? What happens if the money just disappears?

Attorney Turner: Yes, of course. A nonprofit is like any other business in that regard. Solid financial management is a must. It is advisable to address a system of checks and balances in the by-laws and to require an annual audit of the financial records. If the money just disappears and the board allows it to happen, then the board will be held accountable along with whoever took the money. If the board had strong procedures and the officers simply stole the money, then the board should probably investigate seeking criminal as well and civil remedies against the bad actor. The nonprofit could also purchase insurance to help cover the cost of theft or embezzlement.

Saad & Shaw: What about gifts and pledges? What should a nonprofit be aware of when accepting a gift or pledge?

Attorney Turner: I suggest that the nonprofit develop a gift acceptance policy. This policy will assist developing a planned and orderly method of knowing which gifts to accept and how to handle the gifts when accepted. For instance, if property is donated to the nonprofit, the nonprofit must develop a procedure for making sure they are receiving good title and that they are not accepting a landmine which would cause more headaches. Also, the policy could assist with spelling out some of the tax issues which may come-up with certain types of gifts.

Saad & Shaw: Is a written pledge really legally binding? If a donor commits to giving a certain amount to an organization, can that person really be held accountable?

Attorney Turner: A written pledge can be legally binding in some states if there is consideration involved. However, this is a state-specific issue and may vary from state to state. Consideration is simply “the thing of value” each party to a contract agrees to give in exchange for what he or she receives. So, for instance, if a nonprofit was going to name a building for someone who pledged a large sum of money and the nonprofit began construction on the project, the court may rule that there was consideration and find that the donor is legally bound to the pledge.

Saad & Shaw: Many of the leaders we talk with are interested in growing an endowment for their organization. Are there specific legal requirements associated with growing and managing an endowment?

Attorney Turner: I would again suggest creating a policy to handle the endowment. One particular issue that I see with an endowment is that the board would likely need to contract with another entity to assist with the financial planning and management of the endowment. The endowment needs to be invested correctly, and the board should have a policy in place to make sure an expert is retained to handle the endowment funds.

Saad & Shaw: What about receiving property from a donor? Or selling property?

Attorney Turner: I believe that the gift acceptance policy should specifically spell out what happens with donated property. Buying and selling property requires much more than executing a simple contract. The title of the property must be analyzed, insurance must be purchased, the proper disclosures need to be made, and the financing, if any, must be analyzed very carefully.

Saad & Shaw: Everyone says nonprofits don’t have to pay taxes. Is this true?

Attorney Turner: Yes, nonprofits are exempt from paying federal income taxes as long as they maintain their charitable purpose, apolitical purpose. I must note here that nonprofits are forbidden from engaging directly in politics. While 501 (c)(3) nonprofit corporations can encourage the franchise of voting by encouraging citizens to vote, they cannot support one candidate or one political party over the other.

Saad & Shaw: let’s talk about the not-so-pleasant possibilities. What about embezzlement and misappropriation of funds? What happens if someone suspects that this is going on? What actions should be taken by the board or executive leader?

Attorney Turner: The board should immediately remove the executive leader from the bank accounts. Further, the board should then request an audit to see what has been misappropriated. Furthermore, the board should also alert the authorities as to what has occurred. The board should also seize the executive’s computer. Even if the executive has deleted emails and materials on the computer, those materials can be retrieved and can assist in trying to figure out what happened with the money.

Saad & Shaw: We have covered a lot of issues in this conversation. Do you have any last words of wisdom for our readers?

Attorney Turner: Remember that the board has a fiduciary obligation to run the nonprofit. This means that if the board does not have the expertise, it should retain the expertise to make sure it is correctly conducting the business of the nonprofit. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and this simply means that taking time out on the front-end to develop solid by-laws and policy and procedures can prevent several issues later on as the nonprofit develops and grows.

Saad & Shaw: Thank you Attorney Turner.

About Attorney Van D. Turner

Van D. Turner, Jr. is a partner in the law firm of BRITTENUM BRUCE, PLLC (“Brittenum Bruce”). Mr. Turner’s law practice is concentrated in the areas of business and commercial litigation, business transactions, government relations, municipal law, and estate planning. Before joining Brittenum Bruce, Attorney Turner was of counsel at Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Cannada & Stevens, PLLC (“Butler Snow”). Prior to practicing at Butler Snow, Mr. Turner served as Associate General Counsel for the Board of Education of the Memphis City Schools and as judicial law clerk for the Honorable Samuel Hardy Mays, Jr., federal judge for the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

Attorney Turner participates and has served on the board of directors of several legal professional organizations, including the American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, the Tennessee Bar Association, the Mississippi Bar Association, and the Memphis Bar Association. Mr. Turner’s most notable honors include Memphis Business Journal, 2007 “Top Forty Under 40”, Super Law Magazine, Mid-South Rising Stars for 2010 and 2011 in the areas of litigation and government relations, and selection as a Barrister in the Leo Bearman Sr., American Inns of Court. Mr. Turner has also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Memphis, C.C. Humphreys School of Law.

Mr. Turner earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia in 1997, with Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude distinctions. After serving as an Assistant Teacher of English with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program in Yamanashi, Japan, Attorney Turner returned to the United States and attended the University of Tennessee College of Law, where he earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence in 2002. Mr. Turner is licensed to practice law in Tennessee and Mississippi.

You can reach Attorney Turner at vturner@brittenumbruce.com  or (901) 271-3794.

Are You on Board?

Fundraising: Nonprofit board roles and responsibilities – Part 2

You’ve said “yes,” and now are serving on the board. What is expected of you? How do you demonstrate leadership? While we don’t have a crystal ball, we can provide guidance regarding your fundraising-related roles and responsibilities.

For many nonprofits fundraising is often the major method for securing funds and resources. As a board member, your leadership in this area makes a difference. Your roles and responsibilities fall into two general categories: policy and oversight, and giving and securing funds.

As a board member you will be asked to set fundraising policy. This includes items such as approving plans for a special fundraising campaign, and setting gift acceptance policies. For example, when the university you serve decides to launch a $150 million fundraising campaign, that will come before the board for approval.  You will want to ask informed questions such as, “What do the results of the feasibility study indicate?”Or “How many lead donors have been identified?” In the area of gift acceptance policies you may be asked to determine whether the organization will accept gifts of land, or cash gifts from gun manufacturers or tobacco companies.

You will also want to promote accountability and transparency. Support the adoption and implementation of policies related to conflict of interest and whistle-blower protection. Produce and distribute an annual report that shows how the organization uses the funds it receives. File your federal 990 on time. Communicate how the organization meets public needs and be willing to modify programs to help ensure best use of resources.

On a day-to-day level you will be responsible for understanding the institution’s fund development plan and in helping to bring it to life. For example, if the current focus is strengthening individual giving you will want to participate in house or office parties your organization hosts so you can meet new potential donors and supporters, and share with them the important work of the institution. As a board member your hospitality and words carry meaning and influence.

You should know the executive director’s or president’s vision for the institution. Talk with her. Ask questions. Then share that vision with other board members and most importantly with those who can provide funding and resources. Join your executive when she meets with leaders of local foundations or corporations. Meet with her in advance to understand the purpose of each meeting and then participate, showing support for her leadership and answering questions as appropriate.

Most importantly, make your own gift. Make a meaningful gift every year. Ask the company you work for to make a gift or sponsor an event. You have to give and advocate. Set an example. Stretch a little. Your community needs you!

© Copyright Saad & Shaw.  Mel and Pearl Shaw are the owners of Saad & Shaw. They help non-profit organizations and institutions rethink revenue sources. They are the authors of How to Solicit a Gift: Turning Prospects into Donors. Visit them at www.saadandshaw.com or call (901) 522-8727.

Before You Say I Do

Fundraising: Nonprofit board roles and responsibilities – Part 1.

You’ve been asked to serve on the board of a nonprofit you believe in. It could be a college, a local advocacy organization or a healthcare center. Do you say “yes?” What would you actually be saying “yes” to? What do you need to know to make an informed decision?

Board service is more than a resume-builder or image enhancer. It is work. In these times that work includes responsibility for fundraising as well as oversight of the fundraising process. In order to make an informed decision, request a meeting with the board chair and the executive. Requesting such a meeting communicates the seriousness you attach to board service. The answers you receive will let you know what is expected of you. They will also make visible the organization’s fundraising strengths and challenges – something you need to know as many boards now find themselves having to make hard decisions because of changes in available funding.  Note: if the leadership doesn’t have time to meet with you as a prospective board member, that may signal their accessibility and/or the seriousness they attach to board membership.

Here are some questions you may want to ask. Add or subtract from the following list as appropriate. Use your list when meeting with the board chair and executive.

General questions could include the following. Is the institution working from a strategic plan and a fundraising plan? What are the fundraising needs of the organization and what will it take to raise the required funds? What methods of fundraising are being used and how successful have these been? What percentage of funds is raised using what methods? What percentage of the budget comes from earned income, fees or tuition? What are the opportunities and challenges the institution faces in the area of fundraising? Is there a reserve fund or endowment? What is the skill set of staff responsible for fundraising? What percentage of the CEO’s time is spent on fundraising? What is the track record over the last five years?

Board-related questions could include: What are the fundraising-related roles and responsibilities of board members as individuals and as a collective? Are there requirements for board members to give and fundraise? What percentage of annual funds is raised by the board? Are there orientation sessions to inform and equip board members for fundraising? What data management system is being used and what information is available to support board members and their fundraising? What is the average gift from the board?

What you learn by asking these questions can help you gauge how you can be of greatest support. At the end of the day fundraising is absolutely critical to the survival of every nonprofit organization and institution. Don’t be afraid to ask – the answers will help you provide the best leadership and oversight possible.

© Copyright Saad & Shaw.  Mel and Pearl Shaw are the owners of Saad & Shaw. They help non-profit organizations and institutions rethink revenue sources. They are the authors of How to Solicit a Gift: Turning Prospects into Donors. Visit them at www.saadandshaw.com or call (901) 522-8727.

Creating a Culture of Fundraising

Fundraising is a vital part of an organization’s life blood – it is what people do in order to bring an organization’s mission and vision to life. This is what makes the nonprofit sector different from the private or public sectors. “Revenue” is donated or “granted,” and fundraising is the primary way funds are secured.

Successful fundraising requires an organization-wide culture of fundraising. No one person can do it all. Some may wish one person could – and would – take on the responsibility, especially if that person is someone else! But that’s not the way to build a successful and sustainable fundraising program. When you have a culture of fundraising every person within your organization is directly or indirectly involved in raising funds.

Start building and strengthening your fundraising culture by including an explicit emphasis on fundraising in your mission, vision and values. Tie your strategic plan and business plan to a fundraising plan.

Make sure everyone within your organization knows how much needs to be raised on an annual basis, what the funds are used for, and the impact that will be achieved. Be transparent. Show where the money currently comes from and ask for help identifying where additional, or back-up funds could come from. Ask people how they would like to help.

Explicitly include expectations regarding giving and fundraising into the roles and responsibilities of board members. Include fundraising in each staff person’s job description, especially that of the president, CEO or executive director. When recruiting volunteers be sure to offer each the opportunity to give and to participate in fundraising. Provide all employees, students, clients, visitors and others who benefit from or appreciate your work with the opportunity to participate in fundraising. General training and orientation should include an emphasis on fundraising.

Giving – and asking others to give – is a privilege and an honor. Sometimes an individual’s unresolved feelings about money, giving and asking can cloud their leadership responsibilities. In such instances a board member or an executive may say she doesn’t want to “impose” on others by asking them to help with fundraising. What we know from experience is this: the biggest reason people don’t give is because they aren’t asked. We also know that fundraising can appear “clickish” and “exclusive” when only some people are asked to fundraise, or help with fundraising events. Resentment can grow and people with talent and initiative may become disengaged. Ask everyone. Ask for their gift, and ask them to ask. Always acknowledge, praise and lift up their giving and their fundraising.

A culture of fundraising grows over time and is embraced and demonstrated by leaders. The question is changes from, “Who is going to do the fundraising?” to “How can I help with fundraising?” Start now.

© Copyright Saad & Shaw.  Mel and Pearl Shaw are the owners of Saad & Shaw. They help non-profit organizations and institutions rethink revenue sources. They are the authors of How to Solicit a Gift: Turning Prospects into Donors. Visit them at www.saadandshaw.com or call (901) 522-8727

Questions for Nonprofit Growth

Sometimes it is the questions we don’t ask that lead us astray. In part one of this series we discussed how today’s changing – and challenging – economic times can be a catalyst for nonprofits if we are brave enough to ask questions we might prefer to run from. Here are a few.

“How can we operate more efficiently?” For example, as a community of nonprofits, can we decrease operating costs by using one resource for payroll, purchasing, insurance (health and liability), and even accounting? Lawyers would need to be involved; computer systems set up and tested… But at the end of the day, this could increase efficiency and increase resources devoted to service delivery. Or maybe not. You won’t know until you ask. Asking the question and having the conversation could lead to new approaches.

Another question is “what can we do differently?” One organization we know provided residential services for the most vulnerable children in their community. They had their own campus with new buildings. They received public funds, ran their own school, provided housing, counseling and more. But changes in public policy and changes in best practices caused them to change how they operate. They looked at the funding landscape – and the children’s needs – and changed their service delivery model. They have closed their residential campus and expanded their community-based and school-based services. They could have continued to raise funds for their residential program. Instead they had the foresight to ask “where is the market headed” and adjusted course.

We don’t know the questions you need to ask, but we encourage you to think outside the box. Put aside preconceived notions of what success looks like. Remember, as non-profits, our mission is the public good and that changes over time. New issues emerge. Populations change. Funding opportunities change as well. Here are a few questions to spur you on: Would becoming a program of another organization or institution allow us to better focus on what we do best? Are we effectively communicating what we do? Are the services we offer the best way to address community challenges and opportunities? Have we become dependent on one or two revenue sources? Do we leave everything in the hands of our CEO – what if she leaves – what would we do? Would a change in public policy help reduce the need for our services? If so, should we become involved in public policy? Are we focused on sustaining our organization or eliminating the need for our organization? Do the people we serve believe in our work? What do they want us to do differently? Would they miss us if we were gone?

What are the questions you can ask, and where will they lead your organization and community?

An Honest Assessment

As non-profit leaders it is time to go to a new level of honesty with ourselves and those we serve. It is time for questions we may have put off. Questions such as “Are our current operations best serving our community?” “How could we do things differently to be of greater impact?” “Should we phase out some programs and introduce new ones?” “Is our mission relevant?” “Is there a more effective or more efficient model of service delivery?” “Should we consider merging with another organization?” “Who could we partner with?”

These questions are pressing given today’s realities. They are a doorway to the future, even though we may not know where we will end up as we summon the courage to ask them. They may represent the road less traveled; they may lead us to where we need to be.

As the year comes to an end, we can reflect and step up in a new way. We can call on our internal strengths, and the relationships we have developed over time. We can bring stakeholders and those we serve together to examine community needs and how our programs and advocacy meet – or don’t meet – those needs. We can identify gaps in service, and duplication of efforts. We can move beyond commitment to our individual organization and its mission, and look at ourselves in the context of the larger community, or eco-system we are a part of. 

This organizational change – or challenge – mirrors our individual changes and challenges. So many of us have had to reinvent ourselves, change our expectations. There is loss in letting go of what we thought would come to pass. For many it is accompanied by the emergence of a new strength. A new resilience. New competencies are uncovered; connections and relationships are rekindled. We are forced to do things differently as the old ways won’t work. And somehow we find our way.

What is true of us as individuals, and families is also true for us as a community. The way things used to be isn’t the way things are anymore. For many non-profit organizations there is the continuous process of doing more with less. There are smaller budgets, smaller staffs, and more demand for services, advocacy and solutions. And there is more competition as organizations and institutions increase their fundraising and turn to individuals, corporations, government agencies and organized philanthropy in new ways, with new appeals, in hopes of securing new funding. The dreams of a new building, expanded services, or even continuing support from long time supporters may seem out of reach.

But the questions we now ask may contain the answers we need. We can seek guidance for ourselves and those we serve. We can ask questions in conversation with others who can help us see what we cannot currently see or imagine. Today’s challenges can be a touchstone for a better future.