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The Nonprofit in the Mirror: Truths to Unlock Your Growth Potential

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Risha Bailey, MPA

It’s a fact that today’s nonprofit organization is not like the nonprofit organizations in the past. Or, at the very least, the nonprofit environment is so much more different. Today, nonprofits are faced with enormous responsibilities to stay true to their mission, thrive in extremely competitive environments, and conquer the endless need to remain relevant in a world that is constantly changing. 

I’m sure you’ve heard your parents or grandparents recalling the “good ‘ole days,” when things were simple. Life was relatively easy compared to today, right? At least that was the story. Easy going, simple times when everyone was friendly and people left their doors unlocked because neighborhoods were safe and people were more trustworthy.

Well, the same may be said in the nonprofit world. For example, in 1997, there were only 1.1 million registered nonprofits in the United States. More likely than not, if you started a nonprofit at that time, your engagement strategies included one or two direct mail pieces, a possible phonathon, and if you were brave, an email campaign, to name a few. When email marketing began to surge in the 1990’s, many nonprofits jumped on board and learned how to leverage its cost-effective and powerful ability to connect with donors on a new level. 

Annual and major giving, as well as corporate, government, and foundational grants paved the way as viable, traditional fundraising techniques. Only a small portion of nonprofits provided fee-based services, namely educational institutions, and your Goodwill or YMCAs. That was it. Simple, straight to the point, and relatively easy compared to the myriad of ways today’s nonprofits seek to connect with and build their donor bases.

Today, with the surge of digital marketing things are dramatically different-and more complex. The entire social media, mobile technology, and digital platforms have thrown a monkey wrench into the “traditional” methods nonprofit leaders use to raise awareness and funding to support their programs. Whether nonprofits hired their own digital marketing specialists or divided the daunting task of increasing brand awareness, securing online followers and turning these followers into donors amongst staff, this appeared to be a step in the right direction.  

Now, there are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the US,[1] competing for their piece of the fundraising pie. While this may not be new information, it is critical information that every nonprofit leader must understand and incorporate these dynamics into their short and long-term strategies to ensure success. 

So, how can your nonprofit define (or redefine) your brand, secure valuable face time with key donors, and remain relevant in an ever changing nonprofit, political, economic, and social environment? Below are four takeaways that will help you explore ways to scale for growth in the years to come.

  1. Be True To YOU. This may go without saying, but sometimes in an attempt to compete nonprofits detour from their true mission. Or, they try to create new or tweak existing programs in an effort to apply for certain grants. Instead of trying to “work the system,” stay true to who you really are, and accept the fact that not all grants are for you. You will save yourself time, effort, and unnecessary stress if you embrace this fact. Learn how to leverage your unique qualities as an organization. While you can always expand your services or enhance your brand, don’t deviate from the core of who you are.  
  2. Find What Fits You. No two nonprofits are alike, and neither are their branding or funding strategies. Everyone seemed to jump on the social and digital marketing bandwagon. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Hootsuite are among the most common. But you should be strategic about the social media channels you use. While email marketing continues to be the front runner generating over $3M in online revenue, a recent Merkle study suggest that on average organizations invest up to 16.2 percent of their overall budget in online funding, which includes social media, web, and digital advertising.[2] You should exercise caution however, so that you don’t just create accounts across all social media platforms. Do your research, be strategic, and define your online goals. Do you want to engage with information only? Do you want to educate, with blogs or white papers, highlighting industry trends? Or, do you want to raise money? Clearly define your online goals. Seek to understand what each social media platform offers and how you can leverage those opportunities to connect with your audience. The overall emphasis should be on what fits your nonprofit’s culture and how your donors will respond. This same Merkle study stated that online fundraising continues to rise, with average organizations yielding 15% of direct response revenue[3], so it’s critical for you to find what works best for you to generate the response you want.
  3. Identify Your Fundraising Niche. For many years, I agreed with most experts who advised diversifying funding sources. However, research suggests otherwise. Articles debunking the myths of putting your eggs in multiple baskets have surfaced over the last few years suggesting that instead of embracing this technique, nonprofits should focus on one revenue stream that works best for them. A Stanford Social Innovation Review article entitled, “How Nonprofits Get Really Big,” highlights how the largest nonprofits in 2007 grew million dollar revenue by focusing on one fundraising strategy. The article provides examples of how when small to medium sized nonprofits found their fundraising niche (i.e. corporate or government grants, or small donations from a large number of donors), they were scaled for growth and their revenue spiked. In addition, their research found that specialization within a particular fundraising method yielded even better results. “We found that more than two-thirds of them had not only a dominant source of funding, but also a specialization within that area: for example, not just government funding but also state government funding; not just individual donations but also small individual donations; and not just corporate donations but also in-kind corporate donations.”[4] It may take some time, but once you’ve found your niche area, fully develop yourself and become a subject matter expert at raising funds in that area to propel your organization for exponential growth.
  4. Embrace Change. My mentor said to me many, many years ago that growth without change is impossible! So, how can you embrace change and continue to grow? Be open minded to new ideas, concepts, and methodologies. Be flexible. Be willing to invest in your staff, and allow them to take risks to explore new things. For example, when embracing the digital marketing platform, it is important to understand the necessity of curating creative, effective messaging that is mobile friendly. Your desktop applications and your mobile presence should be the same and your mobile presence should be second to none. Why? Because studies like Merkle’s Digital Roundup: 2017 Online Fundraising Report indicate that, “respondents reported an average 43 percent of their 1.1M monthly website visitors came from a mobile device. Approximately 2.5 percent of those visitors went on to make a web donation, totaling on average $3.0M in unattributed website revenue annually, of which 38 percent was donated via a mobile device.” If your mobile presence lacks freshness (via content), is not mobile friendly (via design and navigation) you could be missing out on lots of potential money. So remember, change is not always bad and as a nonprofit leader, you must continually be open to change so that you do not block any future blessings!

[1] National Center for Charitable Statistics. http://nccs.urban.org/data-statistics/quick-facts-about-nonprofits.   Accessed June 12, 2017.

[2] Litzenberger, Linda.  “Nonprofits Investing in Digital Channel Experience Growth. “ Merkle. May 17, 2017. https://www.merkleinc.com/blog/nonprofits-investing-digital-channel-experience-growth.  Accessed June 15, 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Foster, William and Gail Fine.  “How Nonprofits Get Really Big.” Stanford Social Innovation Review.  Spring 2007.  https://ssir.org/articles/entry/how_nonprofits_get_really_big. Accessed June 12th, 2017.


Risha D. Bailey is the President and CEO of Right Touch Consulting, a full service consulting firm whose mission is to identify and secure viable resources that will establish and sustain the growth of nonprofit organizations in an effort to expand their services/programs, and build stronger, vibrant communities. Right Touch Consulting provides fund development, event planning, digital marketing, and training and development services for social entreprenuers and nonprofit leaders throughout the Triangle area.

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