Sacred Cows: Battling Ourselves
Sometimes I reach out to friends in the industry and ask, “What’s running through your mind these days?” Often that’s how I end up with a blog topic. This week’s topic happened just that way. A colleague of mine had a conversation with me about how her organization seemed to be more interested in making decisions that are best for the organization and not best for the donors.
Yep, it happens. Even worse, sometimes it is very obvious the nonprofit is choosing itself versus choosing the donor. So as we compete to drive the greatest donor experience, create the best offers for our supporters and communicate to build the best relationships, sometimes our own sacred cows get in the way.
We’ve all been there or seen organizations go through these challenging times. Sometimes sacred cows are obvious, and other times they are not. But we all have them. Heck, we even have them in our personal lives. Most people prefer some type of routine. Those routines create patterns, and before long we’re all saying, “Well, that’s the way we do it.” So an organization that has some sacred cows is not a bad organization. Also, not all sacred cows are bad. But there is a time where all sacred cows need to be examined, and yes, sometimes it’s time to put them to rest.
Below is a view into the most common reasons nonprofits choose their own interests over what is best for their supporters — and, of course, some ways to think through these issues and come out with the right decision.
Whether you are a health charity, social services, arts and culture, or another mission type, we can all agree that the world has changed over the last 20 years, 10 years and in some instances five years. Science has advanced, community needs have changed, knowledge has improved and, perhaps most importantly, consumers have changed. So if you are still doing a program that you created 20, 15, 10 years ago, how do you know it’s still working? How do you know it is still meeting the need?
On the fundraising side of the house, a budget year doesn’t go by without some kind of measurement of efficiency via cost per dollar raised or some other type of ROI. But on the mission side, organizations sometimes just keep doing programs because that’s what they’ve always done. These can become very emotional discussions internally. If you get a good chief financial officer involved, the conversation will even include discussions about whether the money could be spent on a different mission-based program and have greater impact on the intended audience or the mission of the organization.
Staff sometimes confuses the tenure of a program with the value to the brand. In other words, someone thinks the organization has become known for the program, and therefore if the program goes away it will hurt the organization. The first part of the excuse may be true, but the second part may or may not be. But, hands down, a regular review of the programs an organization delivers is critical to ensure consumers can trust it to spend money the right way. Efficacy processes are used by some organizations but not all.
If we assume that most organizations would love to “go out of business” because that would mean they have succeeded in reaching their mission goals, then every organization needs to make sure its programs are not just about how long they’ve been in existence but whether they are really making a difference in an ever-changing environment.
Similar to programs, some communications can become sacred cows within an organization and end up being ineffective and/or expense drags on the budget. Newsletters and magazines are the most common forms of sacred cows, and boy oh boy, do they sometimes need to be put to rest. I’m not saying all newsletters and magazines are bad — but I am saying if there has not been some type of review of consumer benefit in the recent past, that’s an expense where the value is unknown.
Similar to programs, sometimes these can be emotional decisions because volunteers are involved in these communications. How many of you have been in a discussion about a newsletter that is run by a volunteer committee? And how many times has the answer been, “I’m not sure we can really change that because XXXX owns it, and he/she has managed it for years”? On the flip side, avoid letting communication decisions only become financial discussions. We’ve also all been in meetings where someone says, “Wow, I cannot believe we are spending $XXXX on a newsletter. We should cut that budget — it doesn’t do anything for us.” For these types of discussions, don’t keep something for the wrong reason, but don’t kill it for the wrong reason either.
Communications should be reviewed relative to their ability to deliver something that the constituents want or need from the organization. Value is measured by whether the constituents feel they are receiving something of value. Yes, that’s right, you need consumer input for this one. But it doesn’t stop there. At some point, when the value to the consumer has been identified, the organization needs to understand whether it is the right investment. Questions that should be answered include: Does constituent behavior change because they are receiving this communication? Does this communication deliver direct revenue to the organization? Does this communication drive greater retention or indirect revenue to the organization? It can’t all be about the constituent — it must make financial sense as well. But after reviewing it from both of these angles, it is no longer a “sacred cow.” It’s a proven communication that is a good investment.
Leaving audiences behind
This is an area that many organizations struggle with time and time again. It is a classic example of an organization making a decision that is best (or easiest!) for itself and not based on what the market or constituents need. Many organizations have a broad mission.
As competition has progressed, budgets have tightened and giving has flattened, organizations have to make sure they are focused in the right direction. Sometimes this means looking at audiences served, and sometimes this means looking at donors who are just not staying connected or as committed to the organization.
Years ago I was in a board meeting, and one of the members stood up and said, “Look, I’m in the finance industry. In my business, we would think of these people as ‘not profitable’ so we would raise their fees so they actually leave us and go somewhere else.” I remember the nervous laughter that occurred throughout the room, and I’m pretty sure someone muttered under her breath, “Yeah, but we don’t do that at nonprofits.”
Well, I’m here to say that we should think this way. Whether it is a fundraising audience that is not pulling its weight compared to what is being spent on it or a program/mission audience that has really fallen outside of the focus area for the organization — the conversation has to occur.
Reaching new audiences
This is a conversation that seems to rarely occur, but it should happen more often. Because of all the advancements and changes discussed earlier across science, consumer expectations/needs, etc., sometimes it is necessary to talk about whether organizations are missing an important audience. Obviously there is a lot of research and fact-finding that goes into this conversation, but unfortunately some organizations don’t even make it to those steps. Why? Because when people get out of their comfort zones (or in this case, their knowledge or experience zones), things can slow down or get halted all together. This is a classic example of making a decision that might be best for the organization (translation: easier for staff) than for the mission.
Here’s a piece of advice on how to navigate this very touchy situation. Don’t put only the experts in charge of this type of decision. In other words, create a committee that brings experts and nonexperts into the discussion, and ask the group to create a recommendation. Sometimes having a “dog in the hunt” can affect decision making, so manage to that very common human dynamic.
Let me be clear on this topic: I hate it when organizations have to lay people off, and I hate when people lose their jobs. I don’t know anyone who'd disagree. However, that’s no reason to avoid tough decisions. Yet, sometimes nonprofits wait until they are in dire straits before dealing with changes that need to occur for the betterment of the organization.
While management shouldn’t spend significant time assessing the structure of the organization every year, it is something that has to be done on a regular basis. Furthermore, some of the toughest changes that must occur often need the assistance of a third party that is not involved in the organization to point them out. Sometimes a new skill set is needed in the organization, sometimes a skill set is no longer needed and sometimes larger change is needed — even across leadership. But by all means, don’t stay the course when a change in structure or staffing would mean the organization’s beneficiaries are served better or the mission is impacted in a greater way.
All of this is easy for me to say because currently none of these situations are in my lap. But I’ve been there. Organizations have to be careful they don’t slip into the easiest, most conflict-averse way of doing business across all the basic areas. In fact, in the end, the lack of decisions or lack of appropriate change will catch up with you — through your fundraising and mission metrics.
Vice President, Strategy & Development
Eleventy Marketing Group
Angie is ridiculously passionate about EVERYTHING she’s involved in — including the future and success of our nonprofit industry.
Angie is a senior exec with 25 years of experience in direct and relationship marketing. She is a C-suite consultant with experience over the years at both nonprofits and agencies. She currently leads strategy and development for marketing intelligence agency Eleventy Marketing Group. Previously she has worked at the innovative startup DonorVoice and as general manager of Merkle’s Nonprofit Group, as well as serving as that firm’s CRM officer charged with driving change within the industry. She also spent more 14 years leading the marketing, fundraising and CRM areas for two nationwide charities, The Arthritis Foundation and the American Cancer Society. Angie is a thought leader in the industry and is frequent speaker at events, and author of articles and whitepapers on the nonprofit industry. She also has received recognition for innovation and influence over the years.