Aligning Methods With Goals
In these columns I address real-life obstacles and challenges that nonprofits face in creating sustainable funding to deliver their missions and achieve their goals. Readers write via email to receive a quick consultation and perhaps have their particular problem addressed in a future article.
I received an email this week that took me aback. It was from a board member concerned about the financial stability of the nonprofit on whose board she served. As she shared her concerns in her email, I could hardly comprehend what she was saying. In my 35-plus-year career in philanthropy, I don't believe I've ever run across the situation she described.
Conventional wisdom — and experience often supports this — says that board members need to be engaged, persuaded, even cajoled to be actively involved in the fundraising program. We've all been there. I don't believe a day goes by when I don't see the announcement of a course, webinar or article touting the latest "three-step" remedy to fix board fundraising apathy.
The board member of this health-related charity has every reason to passionately believe in her cause. Her family has been personally touched by tragedy related to the mission of the organization she serves. She is always eager to share the organization's mission and successes with anyone she meets.
She also puts her money where her mouth is. She expects nothing less of herself than others. To be honest, the board member sounded almost too good to be true.
So where's the problem?
The executive director and staff see fundraising as an exercise in grant writing with trips to the post office. Eschewing donor contact and outreach, their mortal fear is donor "overinvolvement" — whatever that is. Grant funding accounts for more than 80 percent of the organization's annual revenue.
In recent years institutional funding has become more restrictive and less flexible. Heavily dependent on grants, the organization's financials are increasingly tenuous. Large swings in cash flow have necessitated curtailing — even cancelling — some well-performing programs.
Apparently, this board member and several others are extremely frustrated. The executive director is well-liked, has a passion for the cause and has achieved some remarkable outcomes. When it comes to reaching out to potential donors and investors, her outlook becomes quite cynical, seeing philanthropists as strictly interested in the quid pro quo.
My response to the board member was flatly that I don't have an answer to this dilemma — at least not a painless one. The one where there isn't some sort of organizational upheaval.
To be honest, the seemingly intractable positions that the executive director have taken put her front and center in opposition to board members and the pressing need to improve the organization's financial standing.
The inevitable will probably be the departure of the executive director — voluntary or involuntary. Her departure will cause significant ripples within the ranks as she is a 10-year veteran of the organization who is well-liked both inside and outside the organization.
So what's the lesson from this regrettable situation? I could do a lot of moralizing about need for a fundraising focus for staff, but I won't. I believe the lesson that each of us can take from this is that boards should be focused on ends; staff focused on means.
The proper role of a board is to expect and demand from staff workable, realistic plans for revenue generation. Both board and staff have a role in implementing these plans. The inability — or unwillingness — to create such a plan to which both board and staff agree is when you make the decision to move in a different direction. Not when circumstances have overtaken you.
I extend my thanks to the concerned board member, who felt enough comfort to reach out and share her unfortunate situation. I send my very best wishes for a near-term solution to this dilemma — for both board and staff.
Please let me hear from you concerning your particular situation and the difficulties you face in developing sustainable revenue streams. Email me, and I'll give you a quick response. I'll choose some of these thorny obstacles to share, along with my insights, in upcoming columns.
Whether your organization is small or large, well-heeled or struggling from day to day, you'll benefit immeasurably from taking a good, hard look at whether your organization spends more of its time in the fundraising emergency room or makes planned visits to the wellness clinic. You'll learn what sends you to the emergency room and how not to go there — anymore than you absolutely must.