Good to Great: Growth Strategies for Up-and-Coming Nonprofits
There are lots and lots of very good, very worthy nonprofit organizations out there. But how many truly "great" charities are there? You know, nonprofits that run efficient programs, maximize fundraising and operate as a unified, holistic organization?
Given the rapid rate of turnover in the nonprofit sector and donor retention rates that leave plenty to be desired, evidence suggests that there aren't too many nonprofit organizations that have reached their full potential.
There are myriad reasons why—lack of funding, stagnant leadership, more discerning and demanding donors, economic circumstances, and the list goes on. But one of the biggest reasons is that so many nonprofits are content with being good, happy with the status quo and continuing to do things "the way they've always been done." That type of thinking, while common and relatively reasonable on the surface, actually stifles innovation and suppresses growth. That is especially true today, when donors and the public demand more from the charities they support—more transparency, more reporting, more personal communication, more options, more everything.
That's why "good is the enemy of great," says Bernard Ross, director of the Management Centre (=mc), an international management consultancy for nonprofits. Ross took this notion from acclaimed author and leadership guru Jim Collins' book, "Good to Great." It's been the foundation of Ross's work, utilizing Collins' teachings to help nonprofit organizations go from "good" to "great."
As Collins relays in his book, a great organization is one "capable of making a significant difference and achieving sustainability."
So how does an organization get to that point? It certainly isn't easy, as Ross and =mc lay out.
In order to truly get to the next level, nonprofit leadership must take a good, hard look at the organization itself. It must assess where exactly the organization is at now, where it wants to go and what's needed to get there. This requires absolute, brutal honesty.
Each organization needs to ask if it is genuinely making advancements in its mission—addressing poverty, feeding the hungry, saving the environment, preserving history, etc. A nonprofit can only truly be considered great if it achieves its mission—actually reducing global warming, slowing disease, saving animals, etc.
While nearly all charities strive toward this, not all have been able to make the claim that their existence actually has stemmed the tide toward the missions. So ask yourself these questions about your own organization—if you really are making progress toward achieving your mission—and then make the "conscious choice" to go from where you are (good) to where you want to be (great).
3 stages to the next level
According to Collins, organizations can go from good to great through three practical stages: disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action.
Disciplined people. Great nonprofits have leaders who are ambitious for the cause, the organization and the work, but not for themselves. They are selfless and have a fierce determination to do whatever it takes to deliver results with humility and will. So what separates these so-called "level 5" leaders from the growing sector of competent, professional nonprofit leaders?
It all comes down to building the right team. Nonprofit leaders need to ensure they have "the right people on the bus" in the organization and the wrong people "off the bus." Yes, it can be difficult and unpleasant to restructure a team and let people go, but these are the type of tough decisions leaders are there to make. And the best ones do just that, making the tough calls even when they don't want to.
Then, once the right people are on board, the leader must make sure the right people are in the key seats to steer change and growth. It's all about determining who first, then the what. You can't truly achieve your mission unless you have the right team in place to get the job done.
Disciplined thought. The best organizations and leaders are rooted in reality, including the harsh reality of their performance against the mission. Still, they don't allow the situation to prevent vision and focus, and they believe the organization will succeed. So you need to not only boast of success, but acknowledge failure and relay the truth—all of the truth—about your performance against mission.
The best nonprofits identify their core competencies and strive to be the best in those—even if that means being the best local hospice charity in your city, for example. Greatness comes about by consistently applying a simple, coherent idea—what =mc calls the "Hedgehog Concept."
The hedgehog concept involves three intersecting circles: what you can be the best at, what you're passionate about and what drives your resource engine. Too many people spend too much time pursuing the new rather than focusing on core competencies. Make sure your organization spends most of its resources on the intersection of what you're the best at, what you're passionate about and what drives your resource engine—while investing remaining time on the new and innovative.
Disciplined action. Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and take disciplined action are the cornerstones of a greatness culture. In this culture, people work in a systemic way and operate with freedom in a framework of responsibilities. This helps foster innovation and accountability—workers are given responsibilities and can go about achieving those responsibilities in a way that works best for both them and the organization.
This helps lead to adopting innovative approaches that build long-term success—not short-term wins such a direct mail test or new database. It's about finding new ways to deliver services, build new partnerships, and meeting the need and new demands in society. It's incumbent upon leadership to find and invest in the techniques and technologies that will transform the way the organization operates. Then the nonprofit must build momentum with these new changes to show progress and change the mind-set of being satisfied with good in order to achieve greatness.
Only then can a nonprofit truly begin to grow. For up-and-coming organizations, these steps are vital.
From there, a nonprofit must shift its focus to its supporters and constituents to truly engage them for sustained growth.
Acquiring donors for nonprofits is no easy task—entire departments exist around attracting new donors via social media, email, on-the-ground organizing and direct mail. The challenge, however, is to engage and maintain these donors over time so they both provide recurring gifts and love the organization enough to tell their friends and family about it.
According to the Blackbaud 2014 Charitable Giving Report, online giving over the last year grew a formidable 8.9 percent, a strong indicator that more people are willing to give online than ever before. Once these donors are acquired, it would be a shame to let them go!
Stewardship is the most important strategy when engaging a donor year-round. There are a few obvious pieces of communication to start with: Does the organization send a thank-you email and email welcome series? Is the content compelling—would the writer open it? Does the organization ever talk to this donor again?
Newer methods of stewardship include social media engagement and can go a long way in making a donor feel appreciated. This includes following back donors on Twitter and publicly thanking them for their support. Through a social listening tool, an organization can see if those supporters are talking about related issues and favorite, retweet or respond as necessary.
Maybe an organization wants to engage with donors on topics they are already talking about. Social data allows a communications team to track popular keywords, or social mentions, that are most important to their supporters. With this information, the organization can capture this energy and put out a donation ask that acknowledges how important a particular issue is to them at the moment. Perhaps there is even a single keyword that can prompt a donation ask. Automated emails based on these social mentions can allow organizations to send messages within hours of when a supporter was talking about it. Automations and triggering of relevant donation asks free up time to draft new content, find new donors or refuel on coffee.
In addition to communicating with donors based on social mentions, think about leveraging your influencers for fundraising. By using data such as a supporter's Klout score, an organization can easily identify a variety of celebrities, professionals, bloggers or prolific tweeters who can spread a message further than ever before. Across a survey of 90 Attentive.ly nonprofit clients, it was found that the top 5 percent of an organization's influencers can reach more than 470 times more people than everyone in the nonprofit's CRM. Sending a personalized message to these influencers is the first step in building a relationship in which they may be interested in spreading the story of why they themselves are recurring donors. This can help attract new donors and remind existing donors why they provide support in the first place.
The tools are here to capture what supporters and donors are talking about. The magic is in how an organization decides to use them. Engaging with people when they're interested in an issue, prompting them with a timely donation ask around topics important to them and having an influencer help tell the organization's story are all different ways nonprofits can easily communicate with supporters and fight back against donor drop-off.