8 Key Characteristics of Successful Nonprofits
By Bernadette A. Moyer
What does it take to run a successful nonprofit organization? For more than 15 years I have been in nonprofit management and administration. I have witnessed highly successful organizations and others that were constantly struggling.
Times change and often so does support, how do you stay relevant when the financial purse strings tighten?
How important is the leadership both on staff and within a board of trustees? Who is in charge? And what roles do they play?
1. Qualified Staff Members
The key to any successful organization is its people. What is the composition of the staff? Does the leadership have an aligned staff and an aligned board of trustees; is everyone on the same page and working toward the same goals?
In my career it seemed that organizations with executives that had both a supportive staff (inside) and supportive board members (outside) were the ones that met their goals and often exceeded their goals while achieving success.
An organizational handbook and clearly defined job descriptions are paramount to assuring that staff members are informed. An organizational flow chair is imperative.
The more skilled the staff is the greater likelihood for achieving success. Is there unison and is everyone working in alignment and within budget will all determine the future strength of the organization.
Retaining staff is just good business sense. It takes time and money to train people to work together and to learn their job and to work as a team. Staff turnover is expensive and generally costs more than just dollars. It may decrease productivity and inhibit the ability to maintain and meet goals.
2. Cash is King
A nonprofit is no different than any business, regardless of how good your mission is, if you are out of money you are out of business.
Are there multiple revenue streams? Is the fund raising a priority? Is the work being done marketed properly and aligned with grantors requirements? Is the product(s) aligned with the demand?
Do all the members understand the difference between a “party” and a “fund raising” event?
Is the foundation reinvesting in itself? Is the equipment and are the systems up to date? Does the physical plant represent the mission well?
The most successful non-profits are aligned for success by reinvesting in their own products, their plant location, their people and their systems. Is education a priority? Staying ahead of the curve, anticipating needs and filling those needs require leadership. There is a big difference between maintenance and advancing the mission.
Budgets that have no real growth and development year after year are in “maintenance mode” and after a period of years maintaining that same budget is in essence losing money. All costs go up when salaries go up, products and services go up and a budget that is “flat lined” is one that is on the decline.
“It’s the economy” is one of the most overused statements/excuses because someone is always succeeding and growing and making money. Typically they are the organizations that are forward thinking rather than in “maintenance mode.”
Build it and they will come! Fill a need and make a difference in the community and add sales and marketing skills and the cash will flow again.
3. A Good Board of Trustees
A good board of trustees is one that is diverse in skill set, has a desire to help the organization move forward is willing to share their business knowledge and financial support. It is no secret that today’s grantors are looking closely at the composition of the board. They want to see a variety of types of professionals represented and they want to see that board members are 100% invested in the annual board drive. Simply put is the board putting their own money into the organization and are they personally invested.
Example: If you are running a capital campaign do you have contractors, lawyers, business people, financial experts and fundraisers on your board? Having the right people is often the difference between meeting your goals and succeeding or coming up short and failing.
A good board knows how to work together as a team, they come together for the common good and they support the board president as well as the executive director. With the right people in place trust is easily established and mutual respect is achieved.
Most board members are in it for the right reasons; they want to make a difference and to be a part of something that is bigger than them. The articles of incorporation will address the type of board that the organization is whether it is an advisory board or a governing board. Board members should be willing to participate in both orientation and training.
Board members are often recruited for their specific skill set and for their sphere of influence as well as their ability to financially support the organization.
4. A Clear Concise Mission Statement
Everyone associated with the organization should be in a position to clearly communicate the mission of the organization. Who do they serve and why? Who is the target market audience and what sets your organization above others? What makes you unique and/or different?
Often going back to the founder’s intent helps to define the mission and create a clear concise mission statement.
5. Filling a Need
Is the organization doing good work and are they filling a need? Today just about all the buzz surrounding nonprofit work leads back to health and wellness and education. And no matter what the core mission of the organization there is usually a way to tie it back to wellness and education.
Health and wellness and education are never going to become dated and go out of style, they will always be relevant in any community.
Why should your organization be supported? Most thriving relationships are built upon win-win choices. How do you align your organization with helping to serve the community and at the same time succeed and grow?
Who is your identified target market audience?
6. Public Relations and Sales & Marketing
Is the community aware of your products and services and do they feel welcome to become involved with you? Getting the word out has never been easier with so many social media sites and avenues. The challenge may be in the presentation of the materials. What makes your organization stand out? What niche market are you promoting that needs to be sold and properly marketed?
A good story and doing good work sells itself! If you have a community paper and your organization is doing good work that paper will want to share your news. Making pitches and constantly keeping reporters and key community members abreast of your activities will assist greatly with your public relations campaign.
Not everyone sees everything or hears it the first time. Be willing to promote your message and your story over and over again. Most people don’t hear it or take it all in the first time. Beat the drum! Share your successes and your challenges.
A nonprofit that is filling a need and doing good works is an easy sell.
7. A Strong Supportive Volunteer Base
Recruit volunteers and train them and treat them well. A good volunteer is invaluable to most organizations. Build a diverse volunteer base.
Young high school students and college aged students are looking for real life work related experience. Build a program for interns that support young people and the community and watch your organization refresh itself.
Retired community members have the time and the talents to share and are looking for a sense of community and belonging. They bring wisdom and support to the organization.
Having a variety of volunteers with different skill sets and abilities can help fill a void. Value your volunteers and they will value the work that they do and the organization that they serve.
8. Adjust and Adapt
Strategic planning is great and having outside professionals come in and assess your organizations gives new eyes/insight and a chance to help you grow again. Be willing to adjust and adapt. If a program or event is no longer working or relevant, discard it. Creating something new creates new buzz and new excitement.
If your staff is tired and worn out make every attempt to bring them back to life or look at replacing them. Sometimes an organization will hang on to a staff member or a board member because they believe that the organization will fall apart without them. This is seldom if ever the case.
Not long ago I witnessed a board that was so tied to a particular staff member, this person had the board completely “hood winked” they really believed that she walked on water. Yet the people on the inside of the organization, the ones that actually worked with her, saw it completely differently. Without going in the details this person is now a convicted felon. She stole more than $160,000 by writing checks and taking cash that was not hers to take, she stole from the nonprofit that she pledged to work for and no one on the board or the hired auditing firm caught on until the damage was done.
Sometimes what appears to be a setback is often just an opportunity to adjust and adapt and set the stage for new growth and development.
In 2008 when many businesses and nonprofits were feeling the financial crisis hit and taking a loss, I witnessed one nonprofit that grew substantially. How did they do it? They grew their mission and their target market audience. They grew from being a special needs school and added new programs that included addressing the needs of kids with autism. They had boy’s group homes and added a girl’s home. They expanded their grant writing and their special events fundraisers to meet more programs and fill more needs.
They became more and more relevant in the community by serving more and more needs in the community, they had a leader with a vision and he was surrounded by a well-trained and an educated staff and by a board of trustees that not only believed in him but supported him. They all worked together in alignment and all worked toward the same goals and together they achieved them.
At any given time and in every economy, somebody is always growing and doing good works; be willing to adjust and adapt and that “somebody” just may be your organization!
Bernadette on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/bernadetteamoyer