I am writing this article with one organization in mind. However, I am hopeful that the thoughts, questions and challenges will apply and benefit many organizations, both non-profit and for profit.
The organization that I speak of was founded by a married couple twelve years ago, and it still thrives today. It was funded, in the beginning, with personal finances, the proceeds from the sale of their home and personal donations of friends and family. The female partner of this marriage was the original catalyst although today this is very much a WE project. She had years of professional experience serving a population of kids who were not receiving the advice and attention needed and deserved. She was so passionate about helping these kids who were having unsuccessful interventions from the traditional medical practices that she risked career and family to start a non-profit organization designed to make a difference.
These children served are overweight. They have low self-esteem. They are frequently ridiculed and bullied. They typically perform poorly in school. They have trouble making friends. They have occasional considerations of suicide. She knew what she had in mind would save children’s lives and would have successful outcomes.
Fast forward through twelve years of trial and tribulations, we find this organization has many documented successful interventions with more than 5,000 children and their families. They reach hundreds of thousands of people and offer expert advice about healthy eating habits, nutrition recommendations, emotional coping mechanisms, and physical activity via radio interviews, articles in publications, speaking engagements and public television documentaries. They have surrounded themselves with health and wellness expertise designing their curriculum with the help of doctors, physical therapist, registered dietitians, registered nurses, exercise physiologist, and personal fitness trainers. They have been recognized by the Cooper Institute and won awards from the National Institute of Health.
Today this organization operates a highly successful summer camp with all amenities located on 200+ acres of land that was recently donated to them. They have annual revenues from camp fees and donations near one million dollars per year. They are proud of all that they have accomplished, all of the people they have helped, all of the children who are now adults living successful healthy lives. But, with all of their success, is this organization sustainable? Can they survive twenty-five or more years after the original married couple have retired or passed on?
Let me offer this criteria for what it means to be “sustainable.”
Mission and Vision: Is the passion still alive?
All non-profit organizations have a Mission Statement and a Vision Statement. Only the best non-profit organizations are inspired by the Mission and Vision. Is your Mission and Vision powerful, dynamic, distinctive and inspirational? Is your Vision compelling and delivered in an effective way? Does your Board, staff, and financial supporters buy-in via the actions you desire and need? Are you thriving or drifting? Is the passion still alive?
Board of Directors and Volunteers: Do you have the right people on the bus? Are they motivated by the Mission and moving you forward toward accomplishing the vision?
Borrowing a question from Jim Collins book “Good to Great”, do you have the right people on the bus? Often, non-profit leadership in key staff positions or at the Board level can keep an organization from just achieving a few good things to really being all that they could be.
Are your Board of Directors members effective Ambassadors for the organization? Do they willingly offer financial support? Are they willing and able to influence other gifts?
Are your Board members Advocates for the enterprise? Do they recruit others to help out? Do they advance your story? Establish meaningful connections? Provide good oversight?
Do you have volunteers knocking on your door? Are they treated with the TLC they deserve?
Leadership and Staff: Do you have the right people on the bus? Are they motivated by the Mission? Are they serving clients with compassion? Are they reaching high expectations and getting desired results?
There is nothing more disabling to an organization than disgruntled employees. The time spent trying to retain and motivate a non-cooperative employee can destroy an organization’s effectiveness. One poor performer with a poor attitude can influence everyone in a bad way.
On the other hand, if you have a talented staff of capable people who have completely bought into the mission you have an opportunity to do great things. Talented positive people who have had an opportunity to join you in establishing worthwhile goals will invariably work beyond normal expectations to help you achieve near impossible objectives.
Brand Equity Can you take your brand to the bank?
As we know from old cowboy movies, a brand is a way of identifying ownership and an assortment of responsibilities and privileges that go with it. The rancher who put his brand on a calf was not only claiming it for his own, he was also accepting the burden of its care and feeding. The real brand was not the symbol burned into the animal’s hide… but, the persona behind it…the identity of both the ranch and the rancher.
A brand name represents a promise to all constituents and all stakeholders. What kind of “brand awareness”” does your brand enjoy today? How does the brand distinguish itself from competitors? Does the brand clearly communicate its benefits and attributes effectively?
Is there creative continuity and clearly understood language in all internal and external communications? Is your brand reputation “trusted?” How do you validate this trust?
Testimonials from Clients, Parents, and Donors: Let their feedback inspire you.
Can you go to your website or to some printed materials to find many “testimonials” from customers, clients, parents, donors, strategic partners, colleagues and more who willing tell a convincing, truthful, inspiring story about who you are what you do?
If the answer is “YES,” great! If it is “NO,” do something, make it a priority.
Donor Loyalty: Are your donors still donating or are they making investments?
How well do you know your donors? Do you keep score? How many donors do you have? How often do they give? What motivates them to give? What is the average size of gift? Are your gift categories growing from year to year? What percentage of donors renew year after year? Are you growing gifts over $100, over $1,000, over $10,000, year after year?
Are you testing different tactics to grow revenue? Do you know what works? Are you investing more resources into development? Is your stewardship of donor resources excellent? Do you say “thank you” with sincerity and in a timely way?
One way for a non-profit organization who has been operational for ten years or more to determine if donors are willing to make an “investment” in this organization is to count their Planned Gifts, especially estate gifts.
Estate gifts usually provide larger amounts of money often set aside in reserves or in an endowment. Healthy non-profit organizations typically have 20% or more of their annual budget held in reserve.
And, by the way, a donor who gives you an estate gift is making an investment in your future. They believe what you do is important, and they believe you will be around for a long time.
Financials: Do you consistently hit your revenue goals and maintain adequate reserves?
What is your track record? For the past five-ten years do you consistently reach your fundraising goals? Do you occasionally receive a surprise large gift that inspires the organization? Have you ever received a transformational gift? Is your cash flow good? Do you maintain adequate reserves?
Have you created a “Culture of Philanthropy?”
The word “culture” is a refined understanding and appreciation for the attitudes and behavior characteristics of philanthropy. The word “philanthropy” comes from the Greek language. It means, “Love of humankind.” Philanthropy manifest itself on many levels: gifts of time, gifts of wisdom, and gifts of personal resources and giving by influencing community resources.
Has your organization established criteria and certain indicators to determine if you are creating a “culture of Philanthropy?”
When a donor calls your organization are they treated as if they have interrupted your work or as if they are the reason that you are able to do this work?
Is your organization consistently meeting and exceeding expectations? Are you considered a high functioning organization at all levels and by all accounts? Are you identifying weaknesses and taking action to improve? Have you created a desirable place to work?
And most important of all, are you good stewards of donor’s money? Have you invested wisely? Are you doing important meaningful work? Are you making a positive measurable impact? How do you know?
Now, I ask again, is your organization sustainable?