Posts Tagged ‘Nonprofit’

A volunteer movement that genuinely impacts the bottom line

Volunteerism has changed dramatically over the years and Colleen Kelly took notice. She observed a disconnect between organizations’ desires for volunteers and talented volunteers who wanted to give their time.

Volunteers are no longer satisfied with rote tasks such as stuffing envelopes. They are looking for meaningful experiences in exchange for their expertise. Equally important, organizations need smarter ways to meet their missions without always turning to the budget. Nonprofits have the potential to both match human resource needs with volunteer talent while efficiently serving their causes.

Stepping up in this way requires a philosophical and tactical commitment from the top down—it requires a movement. Coauthors Colleen Kelly and Lynda Gerty are talking about a major organizational change that involves bold creativity and visionary leadership in their new book The Abundant Not-For-Profit: How Talent (Not Money) Will Transform Your Organization.

Abundant nonprofits:

dispel common myths about volunteers’ potential to contribute meaningfully.

begin with the CEO and board to embrace the abundance philosophy.

focus on human capital to deliver their missions.

transform the way they do business by applying a “people lens” to their leadership.

train salaried employees to lead and communicate with knowledge philanthropists in varying roles such as planners, advisors and facilitators.

enlist and support knowledge philanthropists with training, policies, expectations and key performance indicators.

lead salaried and volunteer talent alongside one another as one collective team.

If you build it, we promise they will come

A tall order for organizational change calls for a big commitment. So the authors make a promise: “If you build it, the talented people will come. And when they do, they will bring incredible joy to your work. They will exponentially increase your organization’s resources. They will generate ideas and suggest approaches you’ve never considered. Your organization—and our sector—will be transformed.”

Walking the talk

The authors tested their own model. In 1999, Volunteer Vancouver employed 14 full-time employees and a handful of part-time facilitators on a stable budget of approximately $500,000. Its 50 volunteers were restricted to stuffing envelopes or interviewing potential volunteers. Twelve years later, after changing its name to Vantage Point, the organization runs 100 percent of its programs by involving a new kind of volunteer, “knowledge philanthropists,” who performs everywhere in the organization: in governance, management and operations. They are planners, advisors, managers and facilitators. Vantage Point now pays half the number of staff at a higher rate. In 2012, Vantage Point had eight employees and 201 knowledge philanthropists in 265 unique roles.

The Abundance Movement: An interview about roles, challenges and surprises

In our CausePlanet interview, we asked Kelly and Gerty about who knowledge philanthropists are, what challenges surfaced when transitioning to a state of abundance and what surprises they encountered when testing the abundance model.

CausePlanet: Thank you for introducing the abundance movement. Can you describe the knowledge philanthropist? What is the profile? Retired, actively employed, between work or all of the above?

Colleen Kelly and Lynda Gerty: All of the above! The term knowledge philanthropist includes people with diverse backgrounds, life experiences and motivations. Some are retired, or approaching retirement, and motivated to stay engaged and share the knowledge they’ve gained over a lifetime of work. Others have recently moved to the area and want to put down roots and make connections. Some are incredibly busy–at the height of their careers and raising small children–and are seeking time-limited, high-impact opportunities to make a difference. Still others are exploring a career transition and looking to flex new skills, learn and develop their portfolio of work. What all these people have in common is a desire to make a meaningful difference by contributing what they know.

CausePlanet: What challenges do most organizations encounter when setting a course to become an abundant nonprofit and how do they overcome them?

Colleen Kelly and Lynda Gerty: Great question! The biggest challenge in our experience is organizations putting themselves in a starvation cycle by not investing the most they can into volunteers because they believe they don’t perform at a high level, are not accountable, and have a high likelihood of leaving. In fact, it is our low investment and limited belief in volunteers that makes all of this become a reality.

What we have learned is that the more we invest in volunteers, the higher they perform; the less likely they are to leave; and the more worthwhile it is to spend time recruiting, supporting and developing them. Investing means creating a robust recruitment process to ensure the right skills and cultural fit (and saying “no” when the fit isn’t there), providing sufficient orientation and knowledge transfer for volunteers to perform their role effectively, delegating clearly and providing ongoing feedback so volunteers know they are on the right track, and seeking opportunities to develop star performers so they can take on more significant roles.

The reality is that people will contribute to our organizations in equal measure to what we contribute to them. When organizations understand that, they begin to consider their volunteer practices to be as important as their salaried employee practices and reap great benefits as a result.

CausePlanet: When you first tested the abundance model in-house, what were some of the surprises you encountered when managing salaried and volunteer staff side by side?

Colleen Kelly and Lynda Gerty: The biggest surprise was how difficult it was for salaried employees to comprehend volunteers could play a different role than the roles they had always expected traditional volunteers would play. At Vantage Point, it took five or six years of effort before there were salaried employees in our organization who actually could “chunk up” their own job descriptions and begin to engage incredibly talented people to take some of those “chunks” and run with them.

When we investigated to understand what made the first salaried employee actually internalize this idea and implement it, her answer was, “You told me that was the way I was to do my job, and I did it. I love to work this way!” Others learned from her and eventually it became the norm. That process took us almost a decade. We hope The Abundant Not-for-Profit can save other organizations time and allow them to adopt this model much more quickly.

Good to Great author Jim Collins says, “The right people can often attract money, but money by itself can never attract the right people. Money is a commodity; talent is not. Time and talent can often compensate for lack of money, but money cannot ever compensate for lack of the right people.” This quotation is a fitting depiction of Vantage Point’s path to abundance.

The Abundant Not-For-Profit contains a thorough examination of the philosophy necessary to begin the transformation toward abundance and the process involved in getting there. If you lead an organization that is looking for new alternatives to meet your mission without increasing the bottom line, consider taking a closer look at the abundance movement.

See also:

Community: The Structure of Belonging

Wisdom of Crowds

Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message

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12 tips for starting your fundraising committee

In light of our recent Page to Practice feature of Emily Davis’ Fundraising and the Next Generation, I thought you’d enjoy her recent blog about the twelve steps involved with starting a fundraising committee.

Frequently, I’m asked about steps nonprofits can take in starting a nonprofit fundraising committee. Below are some ways that you can start out in organizing a team of volunteer fund raisers for your organizational mission.

1. Have a committee description. How can volunteers know what you need them to do without instruction? Start with a committee description that includes as much detail as possible like committee activities, meeting times and length, preferred skills and qualifications, and any other logistics you would want to know if you were joining the committee.

2. Be clear about your committee name. The words “fundraising” and “committee” can scare some people away. Another option is to call your committee the “Resource Development Team.” It sends a slightly different message that this is a team of leaders who are leveraging not just dollars, but also resources of all kinds for the mission and cause.

3. Identify board leadership. One of the best practices in nonprofit leadership is to make sure that your organizational any committees are led by active board members. Board members serve as ambassadors for your organization – both with internal and external networks. Having board members lead committees allows there to be seamless connection between the board and committees with communications, activities, reporting, etc.

4. Share your Fundraising Plan. Every organization should have a plan for their resource development strategies, whether it is a simple or a complex plan. Share that plan with your Fundraising Committee and ask them to provide feedback as well as take specific projects. Review the plan annually and find out what worked well, which goals need to be amended, and what just is not realistic. The plan helps with measurement and evaluation as well.

5. Provide staff support. Do not expect that you will create a Fundraising Committee and they will magically begin fundraising millions of dollars. Very few people are fundraising experts, so realize your staff is going to be the key to the committee members’ successes in many ways. Your staff is on the ground and working with stakeholders every day. Create opportunities for the staff to share and support the committee’s efforts. Train staff members how to lead, not just manage, the committee. Leaders breed leaders – this is a great opportunity for staff members to support and engage volunteers in a leadership capacity.

6. Offer trainings. Other ways to support your committee is to provide them with in-service trainings or share regular training opportunities through other organizations like your local nonprofit association. Investing small amounts of money in trainings can have a great return on investment in terms of fundraising from your committee members. It also shows a value in the committee members and your appreciation for their volunteer work. Read the next six steps at Davis’ blog.

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Managing outcomes requires a leap of reason

Rather than take a blind leap of faith based on intuition or anecdotal information, author Mario Morino asks us to take a leap of reason when managing to outcomes. Why? Because our causes deserve it and social markets increasingly will fund only the nonprofits that demonstrate results.

Unfortunately, nonprofits aren’t great at managing to outcomes for a variety of reasons Morino explains in Chapter One of this book (request a free copy below).

Similar to other professions, nonprofit leaders aren’t rewarded for good management and consequently, have an acute shortage. Funders generally don’t provide financial support in order to make the leap to managing outcomes. Admittedly, nonprofits are cautious of managing to outcomes because they fear the information will be used against them rather than constructively for them. Among those who do try managing to outcomes get lost in the how to measure rather than the what and why.

I asked Morino about the benefit of good information in our interview:

CausePlanet: Your book claims the vast majority of nonprofits do not have the benefit of good information and tools to manage desired outcomes. Furthermore, you stress the importance of collecting better data to determine where you’re headed, chart a logical course, redirect when necessary and compete for funding. If some nonprofits are guilty of overmeasuring, why is there a disconnect with outcomes?

Mario Morino: There are some nonprofits that overmeasure, often because they are pushed by their many funders to provide a lot of data that help their funders check compliance boxes but don’t help the nonprofits themselves to navigate, learn and improve. And there are many nonprofits that undermeasure or don’t measure at all, perhaps because their leaders and board members are not asking all the hard questions they should be asking.

But I don’t want to dwell on the measurement part of this story. Measurement is a tool of effective management, not an end in itself. The macro point of Leap of Reason is that as a society, we’re not making nearly enough progress toward solving our big social and environmental challenges, and we desperately need to find better ways of encouraging, supporting, and rewarding high performance in our social and public organizations. In this era of scarcity, investing in high performance is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.

Join us next week for more of Morino’s author interview and our discussion of the prerequisites necessary for managing to outcomes.

Request a free copy of Leap of Reason for you, your board and/or your association by emailing or visit our Page to Practice™ summary feature of Leap of Reason.

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Use your cultivation know-how for advocacy

Building a relationship with your elected officials is no different than cultivating a donor. You can’t expect to call them last minute on an important issue affecting your nonprofit and get results…unless you live in his or her district, but I digress.

Our current Page to Practice™ feature of the One-Hour Activist by Christopher Kush is a smart tutorial on making incremental progress on advocacy without detracting from your core responsibilities as an executive director, staff member or board member. Each of the “10 most powerful actions you can take to fight for the issues and candidates you care about” takes no more than an hour but cumulatively add up to a conscientious approach to advocacy for your cause. Kush also provides five “super-sized” actions that take more than an hour but are worth the effort.

Get to know your legislator: One of the most proactive measures you can take in advocacy no matter how involved you decide to be is to develop a relationship with your legislator. You may be wondering what value you can bring to your elected official by meeting with them. The answer is a lot.

Bring two clients: When I asked Kush about what nonprofit leaders can do when preparing for a meeting, he said, “There are always compelling stories related to important issues–it is usually a matter of taking the time to find them and refine them. I always ask nonprofit executives to ‘bring’ two clients with them whenever they come to Washington, DC, or the state Capitol. Nonprofit professionals should be ready to articulate the experiences of their front-line clients (members or constituencies). By the way, people who work for nonprofits often don’t realize they do have personal stories. Jobs are very interesting to elected officials right now, so just working for a local nonprofit can in and of itself be a compelling ‘story.’”

I dug deeper with Kush on this topic with the following question: In Part Five, you discuss the mistakes nonprofits make when meeting with lawmakers. What’s the most common among them? Here’s what Kush had to say:

Don’t overwhelm with aggregate stats on your issue–anecdotal information does more: You are in a pretty good position if you are actually meeting with lawmakers, even if you stumble. The first mistake is to NOT regularly (at least once a year) talk to your federal, state and local lawmakers to let them know whom you are serving and what the local trends are related to your issues. Any service a nonprofit provides is one less service lawmakers might be asked to provide in their local offices. Nonprofits that are nervous about tax status can be mindful about not making any specific legislative requests when communicating with their elected officials. (Don’t discuss any current legislation.) The biggest mistake if you ARE meeting with your legislator is to rely on massive aggregate statistics to make your impact. Almost all elected officials are far more engaged by small numbers–the number of people who are being served locally, the number of local jobs you provide, the names of local board members, etc.–than they are by the bland large numbers we often rely on to impress.

Watch for more Page to Practice interview highlights in our next blog.

See also:

One-Hour Activist Page to Practice feature

Christopher Kush and Soapbox Consulting

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Join us for a “next gen” interview with Emily Davis

CausePlanet subscribers: Join us for our CausePlanet author interview series with Emily Davis on June 14 at 1 p.m. CST.  “Fundraising and the Next Generation: Tools for Engaging the Next Generation of Philanthropists” is Davis’ new book that will have you re-examining your prospect profiles.

Generation Y (a.k.a. Millennials) represent the largest population since Boomers. Cultivating these young prospects now and long term as they mature and have more to give is a revenue game changer for fundraisers. What are you doing to address this burgeoning donor constituency? Bring your questions for Davis to the interview or submit them when you register.

We look forward to touching on the book’s highlights through your questions:

• Explore how your organization can better use the next generation of volunteers to support your mission.
• Gain insight into the motivations and opinions of “next-gen” donors to help expand your fundraising focus.
• Ask hard questions and integrate strategies that better serve your organization’s mission for long-term sustainability.
• Find out how to engage your staff and volunteers in conversations about fundraising across generations.

How do CausePlanet subscribers register? Log in at the CausePlanet home page and click on the red link in the subscriber announcements page. If you have a question for Davis, don’t forget to submit one in the registration form. Subscribers can also download our new Page to Practice summary of her book beforehand. Posting soon!

Emily Davis has been working in the nonprofit sector as an executive director, staff member, consultant, founder, board member, and volunteer for over 15 years. She currently serves as the President of EDA Consulting in addition to many board and advisory roles in Colorado as well as nationally. She trains and consults on a number of different areas including board development, online communications, multigenerational philanthropy, and fundraising. Her passion for effective leadership has garnered numerous awards and nominations. Emily received her master’s degree in nonprofit management from Regis University.

Here’s what a recent author interview attendee had to say:

“Another outstanding presentation! CausePlanet has done an excellent job bringing together the experts and the audience for a genuinely interactive event packed with useful information. The opportunity to present questions beforehand and also to pose them live during the webinar is a unique feature that would enliven any topic. Absolutely recommended.

Matt Mullenix, Vice President of Public Relations, LANO

See also:

Liquid Leadership

Working Across Generations

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If 70 percent of change efforts fail…

Dr. John Kotter is the foremost authority on organizational change, and the last decade of his research on the subject has culminated into an exciting discovery that’s covered in A Sense of Urgency. A sense of urgency is an important theme in all aspects of leading change, according to Kotter.

Seventy percent fail

We’ve learned from Kotter’s research that 70 percent of large-scale change efforts fail, the successful cases benefit from sufficient urgency and enthusiasm at the start, in other words, “enough buy-in from a critical mass of employees who make the desired change happen.” A Sense of Urgency takes a good look at urgency and how to create it while not confusing it with false urgency or cloaking it in complacency.

Here are two interview questions I asked Dr. Kotter on the topic when we posted our Page to Practice™ feature of A Sense of Urgency at CausePlanet:

CausePlanet: Your book nailed my initial perception in the opening line of the preface: “This is a book about a seemingly narrow issue…” Seemingly is the key point here. Will you please explain how your deeper look at urgency revealed an important theme in all aspects of leading change?

John Kotter: Sense of Urgency was borne out of a decade of research and writing on how individuals can lead successful change in their organizations. In study after study and in conversation after conversation with managers and senior leaders, it became clear it all starts with urgency.
Seventy percent of large-scale change efforts fail; just 10 percent succeed beyond expectations. In every case, generating sufficient urgency and enthusiasm at the start—enough to win buy-in from a critical mass of employees and to move them to devote the time and energy necessary to drive change forward—proved to be the defining factor. In today’s fast-paced, turbulent world, that gut-level determination to win and win now is more important than ever before.

CausePlanet: You explain that complacency is the lesser of evils when compared to false urgency. Can you please explain why for our readers?

John Kotter: First, let’s look at the difference between complacency and false urgency. In an organization where complacency is prevalent, people rest on their past successes. They are content with the status quo. They are inwardly focused, unaware of the rapidly changing world around them and the hazards and opportunities that come with it. And even if they recognize there are challenges out there, they leave it to others to address them. That sort of contentment can be disastrous for an organization.

Many mangers think complacency can be remedied with lots of energetic activity. They send people running from meeting to meeting, push them to tackle task after task, assign them to this task force or that project team. With all that activity, they feel they’ve driven their people to abandon the status quo and have created a sense of urgency for change. But it’s just not true. What they are actually witnessing is false urgency, unfocused flurries of activity that are distracting and unproductive. And they are even more dangerous than complacency because they sap the energy needed to achieve real and lasting change.

Watch for more of my interview with John Kotter next week and visit for more information about his books.

See also:

Buy-In: Saving Your Good Ideas From Getting Shot Down
The Three Laws of Performance

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Performance management: Slow drip trumps the fire hydrant

You all know how it feels to have someone in your personal life tell you about a conflict they’ve been harboring long after it’s happened. You feel ambushed. More importantly, you feel powerless to correct events from the distant past, where any amount of explanation feels like a Herculean effort.

The same can be said of annual performance reviews, if they exist in isolation of any other strategic feedback and coaching expectations or formal reward and recognition processes. If the annual review is your only plan for recognizing or coaching your employees, then authors Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine would like to intervene. In their book, Winning with a Culture of Recognition, the authors weave in what they call MYTH BUSTERS to address common misunderstandings about recognition in the workplace.

Here is Mosley and Irvine’s MYTH BUSTER about performance appraisals:

The annual or biannual performance appraisal process is not the most effective means of conveying praise or constructive feedback to employees due to several limitations, not the least of which are:

1. Because of their infrequency, appraisals are usually a source of anxiety for both the appraiser and the employee.
2. Standard appraisals primarily offer the viewpoint of one person with no real benchmark beyond the immediate team.
3. Appraisals give an imprecise picture of performance.

Strategic recognition dramatically enhances the performance of employees by encouraging peers and managers to frequently and in a timely way acknowledge efforts and achievements that demonstrate the company values and contribute to company objectives. It is critical that the recognition come as soon as possible after the effort or achievement being awarded.

These “recognition assessments” and kudos then can be used during the annual performance review as additional data on an employee’s strengths (John has been recognized repeatedly for innovation) and even weaknesses (but John has been recognized only once for teamwork) and to identify potential areas of improvement. This presents a much more rounded view of an employee’s contributions, some of which may not have been seen directly by the employee’s manager. Moreover, since such a strategic recognition program is deployed company-wide, data can be gathered and used to benchmark and individual’s performance and demonstration of values in their work against direct peers, team members, the division, and even the company as a whole.

Once a year, once a month, or once a week. Which do you think is going to have a greater impact on your daily behavior?

Choose the “slow drip” recognition versus the once-a-year “fire hydrant” of feedback. The consistent, steady strategy recommended by the authors strengthens your annual review with anecdotal and quantitative information about the employee, thus diminishing the need to couch potential surprises. If given the chance, you’ll find that most employees correct their performance behavior long before the annual review and your bottom line will be better for it. Either way, you’ll have the data you need to act on your annual evaluation rather than ramping up to prove your case after the review.

See also:

This blog excerpts a Page to Practice™ book summary from CausePlanet. Learn more about our summary library for subscribers or summary store for single titles.

Winning with a Culture of Recognition

Fired Up or Burned Out

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Can you afford to pay 13 times more in current salaries?

Peter Drucker once said, “The ability to make good decisions regarding people represents one of the last reliable sources of competitive advantage, since very few organizations are very good at it.”

Most organizations are terrible, if not inconsistent, at hiring. This is not a good thing at all since talent matters more than any other resource in a nonprofit. Numerous studies report that the most successful companies are those run by leaders who understand that people are the most important part of the business equation. Despite these reports, CEOs still do not prioritize the hiring process and end up losing precious time and money. Losses in recruiting, training, and productivity can be staggering—up to 13 times that person’s salary and more for managerial or revenue-generating positions, says Erling.

Dan Erling is the author of our new Page to Practice™ feature this month at CausePlanet: Match: A Systematic Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time.

“Most organizations will tell you that having the right people on the team is the key to success. Very few organizations go beyond that rhetoric. When it comes to execution, they lack the drive to make hiring great people a top priority,” says Erling.

Furthermore, when I asked Dan Erling about the important but seemingly rare evaluation of a job candidate’s competencies versus skills, he had this to say:

“The difference between competencies and skills is vast. Competencies tell us about the internal makeup of the candidate we are considering for a role in our company. Examples of competencies include ‘independence, energy, passion and intelligence.’ Skills are trainable and don’t tell us anything about the way a person will fit within a company. Examples of skills include, ‘Excel mastery, the ability to speak Spanish, working knowledge of nonprofits and a CPA accreditation.’

So, the reason that making the distinction between competencies and skills is so rare is because there is difficult and deliberate work that must go on to figure out what competencies best fit within an organization. This is time-consuming and difficult. But the good news is that most organizations don’t want to be bothered with it. Those that are willing to take the plunge are far more likely to be successful in their hires and therefore infinitely more competitive.”

Human capital is the most important investment you can make in your organization, according to Erling. He has developed and repeatedly proven that his MATCH model, if used from start to finish, will ensure you hire the best fit every time.

The MATCH system covers the entire lifecycle of the hiring process, including: using powerful strategies to craft job descriptions that precisely fit your nonprofit’s needs; building teams and departments that align with your mission; investing the necessary time and energy in recruiting, interviewing and researching the right candidates; bringing new hires on board, monitoring their performance and ensuring the hires are maximizing their performance; and retaining top talent for long-term hiring ROI.

Evaluate the current health of your hiring processes by answering some of Erling’s questions below:

1. What has been your company’s hiring success rate over the past year?

2. What has been your company’s retention rate over the past three years?

3. What percentage of your employees has a working job description?

4. What percentage of your employees is in the correct role in terms of being challenged and fairly compensated?

5. What percentage of your staff matches the culture of your organization?

6. What percentage of your staff has a competency profile that augments the organizational dynamic?

7. How much do your current employees augment your organizational mission?

Find out what the next steps are based on your answer to these questions. Learn more about our new Page to Practice book summary of Match, or visit Erling’s site at for more insights from the author, details about the MATCH process, and his consulting services.

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Your prospect has four sets of ears: Are you speaking to them?

This month we are featuring Tom Ahern’s recent book, How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money (Emerson & Church, 2011).

Despite our lack of Tom Ahern’s vast communications credentials, we find ourselves fully entrenched in writing tasks. No matter how you communicate, whether you are a social media fan or a champion of direct mail, your understanding of effective donor communications will be essential to nonprofit success.

While it’s widely accepted that no two readers are alike, we continue writing to them as if they are. Your donors are not target markets or segments; they are people with different motivations for giving to your nonprofit. No matter how well-intentioned your messages are, the reality is that you are still an intrusion. So we must raise the bar in writing donor-centric messages to inspire action.

Donors have special interests, and here’s a short list of what they care deeply about, according to Ahern: your accomplishments (What did you do with my money?), your vision (If I choose to give you more money, what amazing things could you do with it?), recognition (Are donors like me vital to your work?), and your efficiency (Can I trust you with my money?). Of these four interests, the most important will be your accomplishments. In other words, your donors want to back a winner. One caveat: leave room for improvement and link the accomplishments with need.

Donor-OPTIONAL language is: “We did this. We did that. We were amazing. Oh, by the way, thanks.” Donor-CENTRIC language is: “With your help, all these amazing things happened. And without your help, they wouldn’t have.” Further donor-centric language means you are appealing to all four sets of the prospect’s ears.

  1. One set is the AMIABLE side that responds to people and seeks community, sharing emotions and responding to one another. Ahern encourages you to “glow with humanity and heart and attract the amiable side of your audience.”
  2. Another set is the EXPRESSIVE side that responds to anything new and says, “Tell me something I don’t know!” They burn for the new. They crave the new. They are addicted to the new, the urgent, the different, the unique and the only. “Radiate news value and urgency,” says the author.
  3. The third set is the SKEPTICAL side and is wary from the start or cautious by nature. The courts say, “innocent until proven guilty,” but the skeptical ear says the opposite. Ahern tells us to “anticipate and answer the predictable objections … and allay the doubts that eat at the skeptical side of your audience.”
  4. Your final set of ears only wants to know what to do next. These BOTTOM-LINERS want us to make it obvious, make it convenient, and go, go, go. “Never forget to tell people exactly what you wish they’d do next … so the bottom-liner side of your audience can easily respond to your appeals,” says Tom.

A portion of this blog post was excerpted from a Page to Practice book summary at For more information about Tom Ahern’s book and more expert advice, visit

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Is your nonprofit worth saving unconditionally?


I can only think of one time you promise for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. And it’s never applied to a nonprofit organization, let alone a business. If your nonprofit has sickly or feeble programs and is in a poor financial state, is it worth saving unconditionally? Should nonprofits rise above our treatment of failing businesses simply because they have a worthy mission?

This week’s article by Raylene Decatur, called “Should we strive for sustainable organizations?” is a must read. She and I recently discussed the occasionally misguided goal of sustainability, and I’m delighted she put pen to paper for a larger discussion. Raylene addresses the issue we as nonprofit leaders continue to orbit but rarely touch. Decatur says,

“Rather than investing so much energy in discussing and developing sustainable nonprofits, we should instead have a more animated dialogue about the best way for nonprofits to go out of business. Why should there be an aura of perpetuity around nonprofit endeavors? In 2010, 824,920 nonprofit organizations filed reports with the Internal Revenue Service. What percentage of these organizations is making documentable progress on their missions? Some may have made a real and permanent difference, and their mission can now be retired. Why is it acceptable to open a restaurant that might fail, but not acknowledge that a new nonprofit may not succeed?”

I would suspect that you agree with this statement but are you willing to accept the reality? Perhaps the collective conscience of our nonprofit sector is already tracking this logic as we watch the stage of mergers grow to a cast of thousands. There are a lot of different reasons mergers and alliances have grown as a popular alternative.

Two in particular are the fall of the subprime market in 2008 and the explosion of nonprofits in the last 10 years. In fact, The End of Fundraising author, Jason Saul, claims there are approximately 1,000 nonprofits for every type of cause. These systemic events have exposed feeble nonprofits and prompted them to look at integrating service delivery or tapping into peer organization’s strengths, says Tom McLaughlin, author of Nonprofit Mergers & Alliances.

Perhaps mergers or alliances at their worst are the palatable alternative to failure in our sector. Furthermore, self preservation could be more insidious than we think because it’s veiled as doing the greater good.

In contrast, Tom McLaughlin says the best time to consider an alliance or a merger is before it’s necessary. For the healthy organizations truly investigating mergers for the exchange of mutually beneficial gains, I give you McLaughlin’s Life Cycles of Nonprofit Organizations. Examine the stages below to discover your readiness for collaboration:

Formless: In this stage, there are not enough comparable nonprofits to constitute a recognizable type. Different groups respond to similar social needs and economic realities in similar ways without necessarily understanding why or even communicating with each other. Affiliations of any kind are virtually out of the question.

Growing: There is at least a general recognition that the particular nonprofit service is needed but most energies are devoted to building capacity and solving operational problems.

Consolidating: At this stage, the general type of organization is recognized and accepted by society and the nonprofit sector itself. Some organizations take on a leadership role while others struggle to come into being in order to cover geographic gaps left by the early types. The groups create formal associations and other support entities, and a recognizable national identity begins to emerge.

Peaking: As a field and as individuals, these nonprofits enjoy newfound acceptance and growing influences. The pace of new entrants slows, but those already in existence experience previously unimagined success in areas such as operations, public relations, financial and political. Mergers occur for strategic purposes when strong players take over the few weak ones, which falter.

Maturing: Maturing nonprofits have long ago hit their peak and are beginning to lose some of the strategic momentum they had earlier. The services they offer are now being offered at least in part by others or are no longer perceived as necessary. No one can doubt their collective influence, but some are beginning to doubt their future.

Refocusing: Once past maturity, some nonprofits find they must reinvent themselves in order to survive. Some do; others fade gradually away or merge what is left of their services with compatible groups at an earlier stage of development.

Is your cause worth sustaining in perpetuity? If you say, “Sure it is,” I would add, “But to what end?” What measurable and incremental results are you accomplishing? Are your efforts truly addressing the upstream systemic causes? And finally, ask yourself if your nonprofit would be saved by a merger or would it be strengthened by a merger. The ideal union is when both parties share their compatible strengths. If your nonprofit is looking for a savior in its merger, perhaps you should call off the wedding.

See also:

Why Charities Should Have an Expiration Date

Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability

Nonprofit Mergers & Alliances

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