Sustainable nonprofit organizations stay strong by paying attention to five key areas – vision, mission and strategy, leadership, communicating value, revenue generation, and engaging stakeholders.
Organizations that fail often are tripped up by trouble in one or more of these areas. They allow mission-creep. They fail to generate sufficient unrestricted income to support the on going operation of the organization as well as new initiatives. They fail to tell a compelling story of the work they are doing and the impact it is having. Their leadership becomes insular and stops engaging with stakeholders, often assuming they already have a good sense of their needs and wants.
Vision, mission and strategy
A compelling vision of how the world will be different because of your work is not enough if you do not couple it with specific strategies to achieve that vision. Organizations are stronger when they invest the time and energy into periodic strategic planning – taking a step back to assess their current state and set a limited set of goals for a three or five year period. But this is also not sufficient. Those larger goals then need to be translated into the organization’s annual work plan. Both volunteer and staff work needs to be tied to achieving those larger goals. Those work plan goals are ideally “SMART” – specific, measurable, assignable, relevant and time bound.
The organization’s long-term health is best served when there is shared leadership between the staff leadership and board. An organizational leadership who discusses strategic issues, has clear goals that they are aiming for and makes sure that they have access to good information and data when making decisions positions the organization for success. A key role of leadership is also to ensure that staff has access to the tools and resources they need to effectively do their jobs.
Becoming internally focused is a mistake that is very easy for organizations to slip into when confronted by the rush of the urgent. There is a creative tension between your leadership holding your vision and setting strategic direction and ensuring that you are also engaging with the constituents you serve. Taking the time to see the world from their vantage point and understanding their needs and their pain points. Without this, the organization may waste time and resources creating programs and services that are not relevant to the constituents they aim to serve.
A truism in the nonprofit sector is “no money, no mission.” This saying reminds organizations that they will not be able to pursue their mission for long with no resources. While a nonprofit does not pay dividends to share holders, it can have programs that are profitable. It can – and should -- be profitable – or have net assets in nonprofit accounting language at the end of the year. An organization with a break-even will constantly struggle to remain financially viable. Leadership needs to understand the organization’s business model, including its revenue engine. What is the mix of revenue sources – both traditional fundraising and earned income that build the organization’s capacity over time? Relying solely on grants endangers organizations because most often those funds are restricted to a specific purpose. They support (and create) work but do not necessarily support the organization overall.
To raise funds from individuals and from organizations, organizational leaders need to be able to effectively communicate the value that the organization produces. What are the compelling stories that demonstrate your impact? Have you defined how you achieve your impact, including the outcomes of your work? Are you measuring that impact so that you can demonstrate the change you are affecting?
Use this Organizational Sustainability Assessment tool to see where your organization is strong and what needs attention.
Would you like to talk more about how this applies to your organization? Inquire about a free coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.