The Tool NGOs Need Most to Be Self-sustaining

Friday, 4 September, 2020 - 10:36

Non-profit Organizations continue to spring up that aim to raise and deploy capital with the intent to solve problems that affect many people. Commonly referred to as NGOs (non-governmental organizations), the basis for this standard setup is built around the fact that the entities rely on the generosity of both individuals and businesses to fund their ongoing projects and overall operations. What is often missing from the long-term vision is the concept of sustainability outside of perpetual generosity.
So, what typically happens if the funding tap turns off? The lack of revenue-generating infrastructure rears its ugly head and the NGO fails with their mission remaining unresolved.
There is, however, another way to look at and tackle the sustainability issue inside the non-profit world.
To create a self-sustaining non-profit, it really must be treated like any other for-profit business. Where is the value, how does it affect all involved parties and how can infrastructure and ongoing incentive be used to create a machine that operates without your direct involvement and the constant need for more capital?
Solve this puzzle and you’ll create a greater impact while freeing yourself from the perpetual need to hit the streets and beg for donations.

The Tool:

A key tool for any non-profit organization is the strategic plan. A logical time frame for a strategic plan for a small non-profit is three years. Year one would contain a lot of detail about the organization’s plans for the immediate future. Years two and three would have increasingly less detail. You might even add a few general comments at the end of a three-year strategic plan about years four and five.
The board and executive director are the key drivers for the strategic plan. Consider having a consultant serve as an unbiased facilitator who can take the board through the creation of your strategic plan. You may want to hold a session where you come up with the key goals for the organization for the next three years. Then, at your next meeting, take each goal and brainstorm all the possible strategies for that goal to be met.
Next, break the plan down into manageable projects by having each piece taken on by a board member to create the narrative for the goal for the plan, pulling in the brainstorming lists from the work sessions. The executive director and board president or key board member of the goal can hammer out the details of the goal narrative before circulating it to the whole board in advance of the meeting in which it will be discussed and finalized.
Once you've gone through all the goals this way, pull them together into a strategic plan document. Then it's time to attach a work plan to each of the goals and the strategies you've recognized to accomplish them.

For each goal and strategy, figure out what needs to be done to accomplish it. Do you need volunteers to help get it done? Where are the resources for this project coming from? Is a program attached to the goal that will bring in income specifically targeted to the goal?
Once your strategic plan document is finished, don’t tuck it away and consider it “done.” This is a working document that the board and director should be referring to regularly and becoming very familiar with. Decision-making in board meetings can be informed by what's in the strategic plan.

Topics for the Strategic Plan

Identity. One way to work on your identity is to think about what your organization’s identity actually is. Do you have a strong logo that's associated with your organization? Think of the red cross of the American Red Cross. Maybe it's a color: LiveStrong usurped the color yellow with their logo color and yellow wrist bands. Brands are strengthened using mascots think Geico’s gecko or Smokey Bear of the U.S. Forest Service.
Search for grant possibilities that would help raise your nonprofit’s profile. For a modest amount of money, a brand identity campaign can bring substantial return for the investment.
Physical Plant. If your organization owns a building, you may need to address the maintenance, renovation, restoration or expansion of that building in your strategic plan. Buildings represent a large expenditure for an organization; they're also an asset and assets need to be protected and cared for.
Buildings can also represent incredible opportunities for sustainability. As owner, you can lease part of the building, expand to add retail space where you had none, renovate to create a classroom for giving workshops--the possibilities are only limited by your imagination and your ability to find the funding to accomplish that goal.
The upshot is, if you're going to own a building, why not look at it as not only an asset in and of itself but as a key part of your future? Including a “physical plant” goal in your strategic plan will allow you to do that.
Engagement. What goal might you list in your strategic plan that would ramp up the engagement in your organization? Think about other groups or interests that mesh with yours and don’t be ashamed to fabricate an engagement opportunity. Do snowmobilers use the mountain biking trails you're trying to create? Can you offer some cooking classes at your appliance museum and pull in the foodie crowd? If you're helping children not go hungry, is there a way to engage their moms that you aren’t doing yet?
Your strategic plan might have a more general goal that states that you want to “engage two new categories of constituents.” Constantly finding new groups to be interested in your organization can be a huge foundation for growth. These are the people who turn into members, event attendees and general donors.
Finances. There aren't many non-profits who shouldn’t put “improving financial position” in their strategic plan. But your strategic plan should be more specific than that. What part of your finances need the most improvement? Should your strategic plan goal focus on cash flow? Or donations? More specifically, does your annual fund need improvement? Be sure to narrow it down to what kind of finances and what kind of improvements you need, and you'll have a more useful goal for your strategic planning process.
Hiring. Hiring can be a critical part of sustainability and growth. Not only is having more employees a sign of growth, but strategic employees will help your organization grow.
What key positions could your organization make use of to allow you to expand your programming to enable you to offer more in the accomplishment of your mission? Don’t forget that actual donations or fees aren’t the only way to make an employee worth their salary. Nonprofits should always be thinking about how to better accomplish their mission. Funders and donors aren’t interested in how much money you make but how much you're able to make an impact on your organizational mission.

Adam Callinan, Entrepreneur and Venture Investor

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