Recently, Tom Backer of the Valley Nonprofit Resources  asked me to be part of their “uncertainly initiative.”  Anything Tom asks me to do I say yes to not just because I consider him a friend but mainly because he is so smart, so innovative and so important to the nonprofit sector.

As a person who cares passionately about definitions, I decided I needed to get clarity and so I looked up “uncertainty.”

According to the business dictionary, it is a “Situation where the current state of knowledge is such that (1) the order or nature of things is unknown, (2) the consequences, extent, or magnitude of circumstances, conditions, or events is unpredictable, and (3) credible probabilities to possible outcomes cannot be assigned.”  Oh yeah.

When I find myself in an uncertain or unclear situation, I tend do one of three things:

  1. I head off in one direction, then sure it is the wrong one, switch gears, and go in another.  In short, I become that proverbial chicken without a head (and let me apologize now if I’m impugned any chickens—not my purpose at all.)
  2. I head off in one direction and even though I’m not sure if it is the right direction, and even if it becomes clear it is not the right direction, I keep on that road because it’s where I am, what I’m doing or—most insidiously—it what I’ve always done.
  3. I get stuck on start.That is, I can’t move.  Every direction seems wrong—or at least not right, and I can’t decide what to do.

Too often, these are normal states for nonprofit organizations.

In my uncertain life, what I’ve discovered is that to make things more known, more predictable, and to better anticipate outcomes means that you must have a plan. A real plan— one that is written, specific, structured. And it must contain a budget. You have to know what it will cost….where your revenues to cover those costs will come from, and how much revenue you can reasonably expect to bring in. You must know what it will cost to get where you think you want to go. Without a price tag, you are flying blind. And you have to consider not just financial costs but also opportunity costs—what you miss out on when you chose one thing over another.  My favorite example of that is when instead of building relationships that are up close and personal, you chose to focus on arm’s length and transactional fundraising.  What is lost is yes, larger gifts, but also more loyal and committed donors, increased retention, and people who will be ambassadors for your organization.

Having a plan is especially critical to your fundraising program.  Too often I see fundraising plans that simply say things like: “We must have a robust annual plan, do events, send out grants, implement major gifts.” Wonderful!  But what, exactly does that mean? A real fundraising plan must ask: How much do I think I can raise (and what is the basis for that thought?), how much will it cost and—critically—what are the steps we must take to get there?

The more I think about Tom’s initiative, the more important it seems. It IS a time of uncertainty—politically, economically, socially.  If nonprofits continue doing what they’ve been doing, we will remain at 2% of the GDP. Worse, too many of us will continue delivering great services in extremely inefficient ways.  We MUST begin to unashamedly talk not just about our own, individual messages but a broader message for the sector.  We ARE the solution to the many of the problems that society faces—not just within social justice and service, but within the arts, international programs, the climate, animal welfare, health, and certainly education.

What can we do?

  • For one thing—your messaging must cease to focus on the elements of your programs and show your supporters, detractors, and those who are undecided, what you accomplish and how that impacts our community (however you are defining that).
  • You must get unstuck with your fundraising. Your board doesn’t want to fundraise?  Either they need to be trained so they are partnering with YOU to do that or, frankly, you need to change your board.  You also have to stop spending all the time you have on the things that bring in the least amount of money.  If you don’t want to build relationships and work with potential donors to make gifts that matter to both of you, maybe you are in the wrong job. That means you must start creating an organization that has a culture of philanthropy, where everyone from the ED down to the maintenance staff, all understands that they, too, are fundraisers and how they act and what they say about the organization matters
  • You have to also consider the long-term. What plans do you have in place that will ensure a smooth transition as your leadership leaves—a problem that is very real for many of you.  Your EDs and Development Directors are aging—what have you done to make their eventual leaving a plus and not a panic? Beyond staff, what about your board? How are you replacing those who leave because they feel it is time or, if you have term limits, must leave? And, not to put too fine a point on this, are you finally putting together a plan and procedure that encourages recruiting and retaining board members who are engaged, involved, supportive rather than a board made up mostly of bodies who take up space?

For many, many nonprofit, uncertain times are all times.  Every day we worry about having enough to do what we need to do. Now, in perhaps the most uncertain times of all for us, our clients, the future, it is past time for us to reconsider how we do what we do and to be more aware, transparent, and structured.

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