By Grant Smith
Every major nonprofit publication is dominated with this single, overly-saturated topic: how to get people to donate. Just today on The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 70% of the 35 articles featured on their home page focused directly or indirectly on how to get more donations. Half of the other 30% were nonprofit sector news stories. Less than 15% of all the articles on their home page talked about bettering your program offering, the mission.
Why is it that the leading nonprofit publication earns so much money focusing so much on raising money, and so little on how to build more value into your program? One can only assume that it is because nonprofits also focus much attention on trying to get donations to run their program. And there is nothing wrong with that. If you want to accomplish your mission or run your program, then you need to be raising money. But there is a key assumption that distinguishes a healthy, well-funded organizations from financially anemic, sub-par organizations. For-profit businesses talk about it all the time and in order to survive they have to overcome it. I call it “Inventoritis”, but others have called it the entitlement mentality. Regardless, it involves thinking that you deserve to get money for what you are doing.
“Inventoritis” is more of a for-profit term that involves falling in love with your idea, being oblivious to other factors, and thinking that your genius idea deserves to be purchased by loads of people. When the product flops, the now humbled inventor has to think, “What went wrong, and how can I fix it so I can start making money?”
In nonprofits, there is the temptation to think that your program or offering is so good that it deserves to be funded, and funded by lots of people. One might get caught up into thinking that their program would do so much good if only it had the funding. So, under that logic, the only sensible option would be to focus on figuring out how to get loads of donations. That may be true but if things aren’t working out, especially in hard times, then it is important to look at your organization and ask yourself, “Is my organization adapting to the needs and desires of my beneficiaries and donors?”
This is not just a one-time question, but it is at the core of innovating for change. Making change in the world requires that your organization continues to identify all of the assumptions it operates under, then testing those assumptions and gathering pertinent data to determine effectiveness. It then requires that you identify conflicts between what you want to accomplish and what the data tells you about what you are actually doing.
For example, an assumption might be that you believe that to decrease poverty your organization needs to get a computer in each household. Notice that a mission statement can be completely based on an assumption, not fact. It is important here to gather as many facts as you can convert your idea from an assumption into a hypothesis. The next step would be to test the hypothesis about computers decreasing poverty. Then gather the data and see if your hypothesis is correct. If it is, great! Then you’re on the right track. A few others examples might be assuming that your message is simple, that your management understands the needs of your staff or that your board members all have the same vision for the organization.
This process is neither new nor original, but is it a part of your organization’s culture to operate like this? If not, then you are asking donors to just trust a hunch that what you’re doing or plan to do will be the best solution. It would be like paying top dollar for a drug that never went through clinical trials. That would be absurd!
In times like these, nonprofits really need to examine their missions, their programs, their organizations and staff and determine what they can do better to earn the trust of their donors – not just expect them to contribute because it’s “the right thing” to do. So if you’re having a hard time pulling in revenue, it might not have anything to do with your revenue streams and everything to do with the assumptions you are operating under.