Nonprofit Laurels

Today’s environment requires action, not passivity or complacency. The most successful nonprofits don’t rest on their laurels

If you’re not “all signs point to go,” it’s time to take a look at what your team is doing and how you’re faring based on the metrics that matter most to your nonprofit. Once you know those metrics, you’ll be able to see in which areas you’re falling behind or that have remained static and where you need to improve.

To figure out how you can grow, start with assessing where you are right now.

First, do an honest assessment of where you are. Have you been complacent? Have you tried new strategies to push your nonprofit further and get more innovative as you raise money to carry out your mission?

Here are signs your nonprofit may be in the danger (red) or caution (yellow) zone, rather than the full speed ahead (green) zone:

  • Your budget has stayed the same for quite some time or it has shrunk.
  • The number of people your nonprofit serves has stayed the same or decreased.
  • The number of donors has stayed the same or decreased year over year.
  • The funds you’ve raised have stayed the same or decreased year over year.

If this is the case for you and your nonprofit, you’re likely failing to inspire your board members, volunteers, and supporters to help you grow your mission

Another way to think about this is to ask this question: If your organization ceased to exist, how upset would your board members, volunteers, and supporters be? If the answer is “not too upset” and you don’t want to cease to exist, you’ve got some work to do!  

Here’s how you can start this critical work. 

Dream bigger. 

In the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” Alexander Hamilton sings about who he and America are meant to be. Like America, he is “young, scrappy, and hungry.” He has a huge dream, and he’s not going to throw away his shot to realize it. He says this is “not a moment, it’s the movement.

Ask yourself: 

  • What moments is your nonprofit living? Are you living in the past, the present, or the future? 
  • Where do you want to go in the future?
  • Are you approaching your work in an active or a passive manner?
  • Are you dreaming bigger?
  • Are you moving forward or just standing still?

Even if you’re serving the same number of constituents this year as you were last year and have no plans to grow in that regard, you can still do more. You can make sure that people would be sorely troubled were something to endanger your mission.

There are ways to take the wonderful work you’re doing and expand your reach to teach more people, heal more people, and enrich more lives. Think about your movement, not the current moment in time. 

For example:

  • If you work in the education sector, you could offer learning opportunities to non-enrolled students. You could sponsor and share research that may help with many of the world’s problems.
  • If you’re involved in any type of health or human services work, you could offer an expansive range of prevention and early intervention programs. You could host accessible, off-site clinics. You could sponsor and share research. 
  • If you’re supporting the arts, you could expand online offerings at accessible price points. You could take art to the schools.
  • If you’re doing anything worth doing, you could collaborate with businesses, governments, and other nonprofits to address complex problems in a holistic way.

So, are you proactively looking for opportunities to be of greater service? If not, it’s time to get started. 

Just start. 

I know that trying something that might not succeed can be scary. That’s OK! That’s normal. Don’t let that fear stop you from improving. 

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. So venture. And once you take the first step, commit to seeing it through to its conclusion. Some ideas won’t pan out; that’s OK. Sometimes failure is an option, as long as you commit to learning from that failure.

For example, when I worked as director of development and marketing at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, I was looking for ways to expand awareness and build our mailing list. I came up with an idea to mesh my love of weekend crafts fairs and artist open studio visits with my day job. The idea was to ask artists to contribute one-of-a-kind items to an online monthly auction where 100% of proceeds would benefit a range of local services for unhoused people and vulnerable seniors and children. 

I planned to supplement that revenue with donations from restaurants, travel packages, and other popular items. I pitched “Shop in the Name of Love” to my boss, and she greenlit it for a year and gave me a small budget. Wisely, she knew it would take some time for it to gain traction and for us to be able to assess whether it made sense to continue. I was happy to donate my weekend time (I was shopping anyway!), and I was delighted to find the artist community was extremely generous when helping us out. 

Once I had a few donations in hand, I printed postcards with beautiful photos of the artists’ work. Soon, everyone wanted to get on the postcard, and artists began to refer to me at fairs as the “Shop in the Name of Love woman.” We’d quickly become a trusted brand within the artist and maker community, and they welcomed the opportunity to gain awareness of their work. It seemed like a win/win

However, my workload was more intense than I’d anticipated. Way more intense. We had to build our own computer program to allow folks to bid (you couldn’t buy online auction programs back then). I needed to assign someone to make calls to supplement the art with other items. Someone else had to take photos and write up enticing descriptions. And then we had to package and ship the items to the winners. At first everyone was on board, and it was fun. And the outside world, including the board of directors, loved it. 

Soon, however, excitement turned to resentment. Even though we were making $2,000 per month, the wear and tear on the staff wasn’t worth the investment. We reassessed at 10 months and decided to pull the plug

Here’s what I learned: 

  • All markets aren’t created equal. The target supporter market for a local human services agency didn’t extend to the national online world. “Bargain shoppers” are not donors. 
  • Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. Yes, we had enough staff with diverse interests and skills to do what needed to be done. But the time spent on that work resulted in lost opportunities elsewhere.
  • Think your strategy through critically before you start. Is it likely to achieve your objectives? Is it the best way to achieve those objectives? Or will the cons outweigh the pros of this particular strategy?

Once we took that program off the table, we channeled our bandwidth and resources into different programs and started on our next idea. And because we’d learned those lessons, we were less likely to find ourselves in that position in the future. 

Take your best shot. 

What kind of shots are worth taking? I believe those shots are: 

  • Anything that gets your case for support in front of more potential donors
  • Anything that brings your work to life for more potential donors
  • Anything that builds trust in your organization
  • Anything that demonstrates your organization is empathic and is working for the greater good
  • Anything that demonstrates your organization can be useful and relevant—that it needs to exist

In the example above I took a shot that, in retrospect, wasn’t my best one.  

I should have gone through the iterative process of first asking: 

  • Why is this the project we should tackle? 
  • What will this project accomplish?
  • Who will this reach?  

If I’d thought it through more carefully, I’d have realized that to expand awareness of our mission and build our mailing list, I needed to first ask how many new folks we might reach. And, once reached, I needed to ask if these folks really cared about our mission and could be converted into donors. 

The answer to both questions? Not enough.

Use your failures as motivation to try new strategies—and learn from your mistakes. 

It’s probably worse to do nothing than to do something. Of course, it’s preferable to implement strategies where success is like before embarking on a new strategy. But sometimes you need to try something a bit more risky. Sometimes it’s worth it to take the shot even if you’re not sure you’ll succeed. 

Why? Because you may succeed beyond your wildest imagination. Or perhaps you’ll have modest success. Or maybe you’ll just learn what doesn’t work. These are all good outcomes. 

Whether you succeed or fail, those outcomes are better than sitting in limbo. Don’t rest. Be proactive. It’s the only way to survive and best carry out your mission.  

Nonprofit Sustainability

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.