How to Control the Future of Your Nonprofit (Even if Funders Don’t Grasp its Challenges)

Mark Titi is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub, and the founder of Wobbly Nonprofit.
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Funders are ignoring your needs, eh? Shucks, I’ll bet that individual donors aren’t loyal to you either. Desperately looking for answers inside the crystal ball? Sorry, nothing there but hardened criminals dressed in orange jumpsuits and ready to do community service.

What a lack of fundraising support.

Gee, it looks like I’m out of Kleenex. But I do have some fresh spinach ready for you. 

I’ll quickly agree that the pressure on nonprofits is mind-blowing. But I also believe that harboring toxic thoughts can get you nowhere fast. So let’s shift the focus to what you do control.

That means getting better. You know, rolling up your sleeves and getting your own house in order. Leaving more for those that will come after you. Relentlessly pursuing your vision and making wise choices with the resources you already have. Then there will be no need for tawdry dressing when the time comes to show off your stuff to potential contributors.

Gain a Deeper Understanding of Stakeholders

Perform an employee satisfaction survey. Speak with your vendors about their community relations efforts. Convene a focus group with clients. Tap the expertise of Board members and their firms. Learn more about local community initiatives. Encourage collaboration amongst volunteers to share obstacles and opportunities. Weigh funder expectations against your mission.

While you wait for that next big gift, prime the pump. Completing that continuing education can pay whopping dividends later. What you do today will help to shape your nonprofit’s tomorrow. Immerse yourself in the collective wisdom of your stakeholders.

Improve How Your Organization Improves

When program operations begin to collapse, the tendency is to throw more money and people at the problems. Not exactly the best way to hardwire change into the equation. Frustrations, misunderstandings and errors can result. Costs typically increase and the nonprofit becomes more susceptible to staff turnover. If this continues over a long time period, stakeholders become wary. Correcting this pattern can only be accomplished by stopping. That is unless your organization is prepared for a devastating meltdown.

Picture this. In Japan, some companies permit line workers to stop the assembly line if they detect a problem. Well, maybe you don’t need to go to that extreme. But step back from your own situation, review it and make the necessary adjustments. Try introducing incentives to make improvements stick. Just don’t let your attention get diverted and fall back into old habits. It is only a matter of time before a reactive management approach cripples the organization. On the other hand, a proactive process improvement initiative is an ironclad way to exploit opportunities.

Get Real About Capacity

Too much demand and not enough resources to meet it is an increasingly familiar situation for many nonprofits. Can you deliver on what you promise? Are your mission, vision and core values just a smoke screen? Or are you consistently creating memories that matter? Plain and simple, your nonprofit exists to serve. Is it a beacon of light or just whistling in the dark?

Always know your capacity to fulfill your mission. Don’t be skipping workout sessions and expect to be fit. Do you have the right mix of people, systems, information, fixed assets and money working together to pursue your vision? Expansion can be healthy but uncensored growth can quickly turn into a nightmare.

Demonstrate True Power

Please just give us that huge endowment we have always dreamed about. Then we will show you our true power. Yes indeed, we will use your money to plug up all those leaks in our budget. Rags to riches we are!

Uh, excuse me. Why the wild cheering before the goal line has been crossed?

It is the organization’s opportunity to amass power through innovation, collaboration, honesty, hope and patience. Indeed that identity must be real—not just a façade that permeates the storytelling of snollygosters. Power is demonstrated through capacity, dynamism, effectiveness and virtue. Control should be seen as a byproduct of consistently aligning and distributing resources to produce favorable outcomes for stakeholders. That’s the kind of power that earns respect and is long lasting.

Become an Opportunity Seeker

Accentuate strengths. Remedy weaknesses. Add a new service ingredient to the recipe. Innovate. Produce a new result. Seek patterns and the meaning behind them.

The turbulent environment in which nonprofits operate is always ripe with opportunities. Challenges can be in the form of crushing blows with immediate impact. Or they can be treading softly behind the scenes. So always be on the lookout for what may be lurking. And don’t forget that getting better is the real opportunity.

Stop Seeking Instant Gratification

Don’t accept quick fixes that dull your nonprofit’s brilliance. Instead look for low-risk investments that appreciate over time. Like patience, perseverance and plain hard work. Never stop scattering the seeds that can produce a bountiful harvest in the future.

Instant gratification blinds vision. Yet many good things take time. A good glass of wine comes from grapes that took years to grow. The spectacular view comes after the mountain has been climbed. The tunnel vision of the here and now can strangle your mission. So see the beauty in the struggle and savor each step of the journey. Getting something too easily can cheapen the outcome.

Create the Right Structure

An unstructured environment can lead to a deep plunge into cold, icy waters. Leadership must assure that everyone connected to the mission is marching in the same direction. Have you empowered your people and tapped their skill sets? (Nobody wants to feel like stale bread.) Are your decision-making procedures sound? Have you let go of the past and made future change relevant? Are roles clear and is staff mobilized for action? Do you have the traction necessary to generate positive momentum?

Be sure to differentiate between operating structure and culture. The composite of any culture is made up of an abundance of core beliefs, values, ideas and knowledge. It is the expectation that the organization will respect, embrace and nourish this individual diversity: not that it will attempt to manipulate it. That is why it’s important to make the careful selection and retention of your people assets one of your highest goals.

Learn to Rebound Quickly from Setbacks

You won’t escape taking a punch from time to time. Just make sure it’s not a knockout blow. If you can keep getting up off the canvas, develop some better footwork and have a good one-two combo, then your nonprofit will have what it takes to be an undisputed champion: resiliency. Resilience isn’t a trait that organizations just have. But it can be developed over time like the rope-a-dope.

A retreat process is conditioning that can help to clarify vision and build punching power. When your organization begins to search for itself, it will be on the road to controlling its future.

There is a tremendous amount of potential residing within your own nonprofit. The more of this potential you are able to tap, the more control and fundraising support you will have.

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Mark Titi is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub, the founder of Wobbly Nonprofit and authors the Leave Your Mark blog. He has developed the Multiplying Good program for small nonprofits. You can get your free copy of the program blueprint here.