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nonprofit programs

What Are The Key Strategic Questions Facing Your Nonprofit?

At the beginning of any strategic planning process I lead, this is the question I pose to the nonprofit’s leadership: “What are the key strategic questions facing your nonprofit?”

Nonprofit leaders who want to plan for the future must first articulate what it is they need to decide about that future. A strategic question is a big picture, two roads diverged in the woods kind of question. Shall we go this way, or shall we go that way? They are not the tactical “How do we get this done?” questions, but rather the “What should we be doing?” kinds of questions.

So my first step in strategic planning is to lead the board and staff to create a laundry list of the big picture questions they want to be able to answer by the end of the strategic planning process.

These are questions like:

What people or groups are we seeking to benefit or influence?
It is absolutely essential that your nonprofit get crystal clear about who your target population is in order to better create change for those targets, more effectively encourage funders to invest in what you are doing, put your limited resources to their highest and best use, and, most importantly, to really understand how best to create social change. Your target populations are those people who you are uniquely positioned to benefit or influence and in doing so will move you closer to achieving your nonprofit’s long-term vision for change. When you get clear about who you are best positioned to benefit or influence, you will be better able to direct your precious resources (staff, board, money, volunteers) toward achieving that ultimate goal. The clearer and more specific you can get about exactly who your target population(s) are, the more effective you will be at creating change for them.

Which programs or activities should we cut?
Often nonprofit leaders are so big hearted that over the years they take on more and more programs and services, regardless of whether those additional programs make strategic sense or fit with the core competencies of their organization. So if you run a nonprofit with a long list of programs that don’t necessarily align with each other or with what you do best, you may want (during your strategic planning process) to ask which programs should stay and which should go.

What social issues are we working to address?
Sometimes a nonprofit’s board and staff are at odds about (or at least have never really decided) the exact list of social problems their nonprofit wants to address. A nonprofit is typically created because its founder recognizes some injustice or disparity and she wants to address that problem. But over time, a nonprofit’s leadership might take on additional issues, or the issues they were formed to address might change or grow, or other competing groups might launch to address similar issues.  So to chart a future direction, board and staff together must become crystal clear about exactly which social problems they believe are in their nonprofit’s purview.

Given what others working on the same issues are doing, where should we be focusing our efforts?
You cannot create a long-term strategy in a vacuum. Therefore you must get outside your walls and understand what other people and groups working on similar social issues are doing. And then you may need to determine what impact those efforts have on your nonprofit’s future direction and where can you have the most effective results.

What changed conditions should result from our work?
This is the ultimate strategic question because it forces everyone to articulate why your nonprofit exists. The changed social conditions that you desire (in other words, your desired outcomes) help you articulate what you ultimately hope your nonprofit will accomplish. And by articulating that, you can then work backwards to determine how you will operate, what programs you will run, who you will work with, how you will be funded, etc. Your desired outcomes serve as your nonprofit’s guiding light. And they hold your nonprofit accountable both internally and externally.

What is the most sustainable financial model for the outcomes we want to achieve?
All money is not equal and in order to create sustainable social change you have to figure out how to attract enough and the right kinds of money to achieve your outcome goals. So as part of your strategic planning process, you may need to figure out what your financial model should look like given the answers to all of your other strategic questions.

These are just a sampling of potential key strategic questions. Your unique mission and operating model will necessitate that you create your own custom list of key strategic questions.

Once you have that list, the purpose of a good strategic planning process then is to set about answering those questions in an evidence-based, decisive way. And once you have answers to all of your key strategic questions, you can craft a compelling, effective strategic plan that board, staff and supporters will be excited to bring to fruition.

If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I use with my clients, check out my Strategic Planning page.

Photo Credit: Nick Page

 

 

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Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?

nonprofit boardI was speaking to a group of nonprofit leaders in Pittsburgh last month about how to Move From Fundraising to Financing and there were some parts of the presentation that raised eyebrows and (sometimes) controversy. And it usually happened around the topic of the nonprofit board.

I strongly believe that the board of directors is a nonprofit’s most critical financial asset. A board that is actively engaged and has the specific skills, experience, and networks required to deliver on the organization’s strategy can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is truly creating social change. And money is an inextricable part of that. Therefore, a nonprofit’s board cannot avoid its money role, or the organization and its mission will suffer.

Is your board avoiding their money role? Here’s what it looks like when they are:

The Board Isn’t Raising 10% of the Budget
I know it’s heresy, but I believe that a board should be charged with raising at least 10% of a nonprofit’s annual budget. But that doesn’t mean they all have to write personal checks (or get their friends to write them). Rather, there is an endless list (here and here) of ways board members, who are fundraising shy, can bring money in the door. Because why should the entire financial burden be left on the shoulders of the staff? That’s just not sustainable. And if you can’t get your board to step up to the financial plate, how will you have any hope of getting others to do so? There are really so many reasons why your board should take on more money responsibilities.

The Board Doesn’t Enforce a Give/Get
So to reinforce the idea of complete board involvement in the financial engine, you need to make it a practice. And that’s where the give/get comes in. A give/get requirement is a minimum dollar amount at which each individual board member must either “give” themselves, and/or “get” from somewhere else. Every single member of the board must understand and contribute to how money flows to the organization. They cannot argue that money is the purview only of the staff or a subset of board members. Money has to be part of the ENTIRE board’s job. Until you force the board to really participate in creating and maintaining an effective financial engine, you won’t be able to have substantive conversations about or get real engagement in raising or spending money.

New Program Decisions Ignore Money
It is not enough for a board to approve new programs or program expansion by only analyzing the potential impact on the mission. The board must also understand how a new program will or will not contribute to the long-term financial sustainability of the organization. The board needs to analyze all of the costs (including set up, opportunity costs, and ongoing operating costs) of the program and whether the program can attract enough money to at least cover those costs. And if not, whether the new program can be subsidized by other activities already in the mix. But the board cannot blind themselves to the financial downfalls of a sexy new program.

Real Conversations About Money Happen Only in Crisis 
Most board meetings include an update on a nonprofit’s budget, which is the extent of any money conversation. If there is a problem (expenses are too high, or revenue is not flowing as budgeted) a long conversation will ensue about the crisis. But bigger, regular discussions about the overall financial strategy of the organization are scarce. If the board is to be the financial steward of the organization, they have to spend time analyzing and developing their nonprofit’s financial model — where revenue should flow and how money should be employed to meet the mission. Money is a tool. But to effectively wield that tool, the board needs to think, talk, and act strategically about it.

For a nonprofit to be truly effective and sustainable, its board — the entire board — must embrace its money role. Because their is no mission without money. And no successful board turns a blind eye to the financial engine of their organization.

If you want to find out more about developing a sustainable financial model for your nonprofit, download the Develop a Financial Model Bundle. And if you want to learn how to create a more effective board, download the Build an Engaged Board Bundle.

Photo Credit: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez

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5 Reasons Your Nonprofit Isn’t Raising Enough Money

5 Reasons Nonprofits Struggle FinanciallyThe majority of nonprofits struggle to bring money in the door. And they often don’t know why. When you are on the inside of an organization that is used to doing things a certain way it can be nearly impossible to see new opportunities, to understand what you could do differently. There can be many reasons why a nonprofit doesn’t bring enough money in the door.

But here are the top 5 reasons a nonprofit struggles financially:

  1. Too Many Programs Drain Money From Your Organization. It sounds like a truism — you struggle with money because your programs cost money. But the reality is that few nonprofits analyze their programs to determine each one’s individual impact on the bottom line. Often they will add a new program because it has an impact on the mission (or because a single funder wants the program), without understanding how the new program fits into the organization’s overall financial picture. The end result is an organization that is stretched to the breaking point. Nonprofits must analyze all of their programs to understand their impact not just on mission, but also on finances, then they can make decisions about where to more sustainably focus resources.

  2. You’re Leaving Money Up to One Person. The financial engine of a nonprofit must be a team effort. Yes, it is important, if you are large enough, to have a staff member whose sole job is to think about money, but you cannot leave it all up to her. The entire organization, from the front line program staff all the way up to the chair of the board must understand the critical importance of money and what role they individually play in securing it. Although program staff won’t actively solicit donors, they can still share client stories with donors, write blog or newsletter articles, participate in program tours with donors, and even suggest new ideas for tying money to their programs. And there are countless ways for board members to bring money in the door, but you have to make sure they are aware of and doing their part.

  3. You’re Not Effectively Telling Your Story. It is so common for nonprofit staff and board members, who believe so passionately in their cause, to think that it’s obvious to outsiders why they should get involved. But it isn’t. And in an increasingly crowded social change marketplace it is more important than ever that nonprofits be able to articulate, in a compelling way, what value they are providing a community.

  4. You’re Doing What Everyone Else Does. It drives me crazy when a nonprofit that is struggling financially witnesses another nonprofit’s fundraising activity and tries to replicate that perceived success, without analyzing if it makes sense. Just because it looks like a recent gala or a new thrift store rakes in the money doesn’t mean a) that it did actually make a profit for the nonprofit and b) that it would make a similar profit for your nonprofit. The key is to make the best use of your specific assets as an organization. Think about what value you have to offer and who might be interested in paying for that value. For example, a homeless shelter could financially partner with local businesses to move people away from storefronts and into more stable and life-changing accommodations. You have to analyze what you have to offer and who specifically would be willing to pay for that value.

  5. You’re Not Investing In Your Money Raising Function. If you don’t have enough or the right kind of staff in place to raise money it is little wonder that you struggle. And if you’re not giving them effective tools they will be at a loss. Think about your financial engine and the various revenue streams you employ. Do you have the technology, staffing, systems, materials, space you need to raise money well in those ways? For example, if you want to raise money from individuals you need an effective database system that tracks contact information, interactions, history, interests. Whatever ways you bring money in the door, you need to ensure you have enough and the right kind of tools to do it well.

If you’d like help to both assess why your nonprofit isn’t raising enough money and create a plan to raise more, join us for the Financing Not Fundraising E-Course. I’ll analyze how your organization brings money in the door, give you ideas for increasing your financial engine, and help you put together a new financing plan. You’ll also get to hear from and work with other nonprofit leaders in your shoes. Find out more about the Financing Not Fundraising E-Course here.

Photo Credit: tuppaware_001

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