How to Successfully Forecast the Future for Your Nonprofit
Nonprofits often feel under-resourced and spend their days rushing from one activity to the next, frequently operating in firefighter mode. Unfortunately, this can lead organizations to be so focused on dealing with current issues that they feel unable to take the time to accurately assess the impact of their current work, or to determine if there should be any changes or updates to the nonprofit’s program offerings going forward.
While we can’t give you more time in a day, we can provide some guidelines to help ensure your organization is staying relevant for the people and communities you serve.
No matter how dedicated everyone is to the mission, it still takes continual effort to ensure boards of directors, volunteers and staff fully understand the scope of their organization’s mission and to reinforce the need to keep that mission at the forefront of every decision they make.
This is true when making decisions about current operations and fundraising, as well as when looking toward the future to determine what potential needs will be and how the organization will address those needs.
What should the future look like? Whether you call it future-casting, forecasting or strategic planning (each of which are slightly nuanced ways to plan for the future), the core concept is the same — you must put in the work to identify the best course of action for your organization to meet future demand.
The first step is to solicit input. It is important to solicit input from a variety of sources in order to avoid confirmation bias, which, according to Harvard Business School is “the human tendency to search for, favor, and use information that confirms one’s pre-existing views on a certain topic.”
Here are some ways to solicit input from internal stakeholders.
The most important place to start is with your clients — the users of your nonprofit’s services. For example, children are at the heart of the mission at Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County. So Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County asks the youth their thoughts and opinions about what they need now, as well as what they believe will be needed in coming months or years. This is done by surveys and focus groups.
The organization’s staff then identify the common themes from all of the client input and use the ideas that bubble to the top as starting points to consider potential updates to or shifts in programs and services offered. This evaluation includes whether additional staff and facilities are likely to be required to support any new offerings.
3. Board of Directors
Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County convenes its board of directors for a yearly planning retreat at which the organization solicits the same type of input regarding what the trustees feel are priorities for the future.
The organization then compares the input and suggestions for the future from youth clients, staff, and board members to identify synergies.
And here are some additional ways to solicit input from external stakeholders.
Engagement with the community year-round is a necessary component to knowing what current and future needs exist in the local area. For example, Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County continually educates the public about its mission and programs so that community members, elected officials and business owners understand the value the nonprofit brings to the region.
The organization partners with workforce development organizations to keep tabs on what current and future needs employers are reporting.
Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County then creates a Venn diagram of internal needs and community needs to identify the places where its programs and services can potentially mesh its clients’ desires with the community’s workforce deficits.
It is important to keep in mind that there are many factors influencing the environments in which our nonprofits operate. We don’t have a crystal ball and cannot know what exactly the future holds. Therefore, scenario planning is a smart move.
For example, if youth clients, staff, board members and community employers all identify the artificial intelligence (AI) program ChatGPT4 and future iterations as a desirable after-school certificate program option they feel would benefit the youth and the local companies for which those students could one day work, that creates great potential for a new pilot program. (Keep pilot programs in mind as an option. Future planning doesn’t mean you’re required to go all in on every idea. Funding pilots can be a great way to test the waters).
However, scenario planning in this example means it would be important to know that Congress is likely to take up legislation in the next few years attempting to regulate some uses of artificial intelligence. Such legislation could affect what types of AI certifications are useful to employers. The nonprofit in this example would want to leave room for flexibility, for altering the certificate program if necessary to meet evolving guidelines.
Leadership and Success Measurements
Two final important aspects of future planning are leadership and measurements for success. First, a forward-thinking organization that solicits input from clients and others must be willing to value that feedback and use it honestly in future planning. Subsequently, for the recruiting process, a nonprofit’s ideal board member profile should include comfort with change and willingness to collaborate.
Second, in order to know if your efforts are successful, define what success looks like. Whatever method of strategic planning your organization employs, make sure that everyone involved agrees upon the goals, objectives and what measurements to use to determine when the results of the work are successful.
An organization that keeps its mission front and center, solicits and truly listens to input, is willing to try new things and always keeps one eye on the future is likely to achieve success for all involved — both today and tomorrow.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits across the U.S. on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 25 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership, a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and a DEI in the Workplace certificate. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE), an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer, and holds a BoardSource certificate in nonprofit board consulting. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.