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Nonprofits' Three Greatest Challenges

To paraphrase the 1992 Clinton campaign, "It's the money, stupid." That's what nearly half—46 percent—of Newsletter readers told us in response to the March Question of the Month, "What is the greatest challenge your organization faces?"

Finding the money to accomplish our mission 46%
Other 21%
Getting the word out about us and what we do 17%
Staffing 7%
Strategic planning/setting priorities 3%
Managing donor and funder expectations 2%
Building public trust—in us and/or in the sector as a whole 1%
Obtaining and/or incorporating the technology we need to accomplish our mission 1%
Complying with state and federal requirements for our organization 1%

And if it's not the money, then it's governance/management (discussed below under "Other") or communications issues. Here is what participants told us about these three challenges.

Finding the Money to Accomplish Our Mission

"All other challenges pale in comparison to the need for funding to keep our doors open and accomplish our mission," wrote Dr. Roshani Shay of the Hawaii Wellness Institute. Barbara Wetzler of the SPCA of Central Florida, Inc. agreed: "We never lack for vision, ideas or enthusiasm. The challenge is always finding sufficient funds today to safeguard the agency's financial vitality while working toward a progressive and stable future."

Some types of funding are more difficult to raise than others. "Unrestricted funds are getting harder and harder to find," an anonymous participant stated. "Sustaining operating funds rather than 'unique' project funds is annually horrendous," commented another.

A third anonymous reader noted, "There are too many groups competing for the available money."

Vicki Schwartz of Huckleberry Youth Programs pointed to reduced government funding. "During the course of the last several years, the availability of public funding (federal, state, local) has dwindled. It is evident that we must increasingly solicit funding from foundations, corporations and philanthropic individuals." An anonymous participant concurred: "With the contracting of government funding our principal challenge is to increase our private funding: individuals, foundations and corporations."

Some missions seem harder to sell to supporters than others. "We're in the brain injury job rehabilitation field," explained Rulon Eames of Phoenix Services. "Both government and private funders ... would much rather spend their dollars on 'sexy' causes such as children's charities, cancer, and heart disease." An anonymous respondent from "a 'behind the scenes' prevention, rather than ... hands on org" observed, "Spreadsheets have a tougher time competing with homeless furry animals 'now' in shelters."

Guy Chocensky of Children's Books Online: the Rosetta Project, Inc. suggested that for many organizations, lack of expertise compounds the problem. "Someone really ought to create a grant writer's service for fledgling organizations either offering help pro bono or working on some pay as the money comes in basis. Grant writing is a profession, after all and far too many 501(c)(3)s lack the grant management focus and know-how to get the grants they're likely very eligible for."

Even where the expertise exists, it can be difficult to get. "Competition for qualified and experienced fundraising staff is very tough," an anonymous participant pointed out.


Board-related issues appeared most frequently in the comments of respondents who selected "Other." "Finding people to take on core leadership responsibilities and the challenges of moving the organization to the next level in its lifecycle so that we can hire staff & get an office has just about wiped out the two founders—my husband and me—emotionally," an anonymous participant wrote.

Kim Lumpkin defined "finding capable, committed board members" as the greatest challenge 2nd Chance, Inc. faces. "It is difficult to find people with both these characteristics. The most capable among us rarely have time to serve. Those with the most time may not have the expertise to advise the director on how to run an organization."

Filling every board position seems to be only half the battle, however. DeeVon Quirolo of Reef Relief stated, "It is especially difficult to enlist board members to help raise funds despite their commitment to do so for our organization as part of their 'job description' which they pledged to uphold upon joining the board."

An anonymous respondent echoed these comments: "Board members (12 total) sign a contract of what they have *agreed* to do (no one is forced), but less than half even attend monthly board meetings let alone assist with fundraising, or help with events. This is an entrenched problem that volunteers have noticed. Are we not screening properly?"

The problem seems to be widespread. "I'm responding as a consultant to nonprofits," wrote Kelly Kennedy of "My clients' biggest challenge is governance: getting Board members to really step up to the plate and govern and steer the organization. Alas, this is probably a natural consequence of volunteer boards in an era of overscheduling."

Jack Soares identified "EVALUATION" as Lincoln Child Center's greatest challenge. "Planning, particularly long term strategic planning, frequently gets a lower priority than delivering service and raising the money to support the operation. All too often devising a plan is a check-box accountability: done, crossed off the to-do list and then ignored. Evaluation is an even bigger challenge, except in areas like fundraising where there is a bottom line goal. 'How many services were performed?' 'What was the outcome of the service?' 'What was our intended outcome?' The answers help guide fine tuning of the service system and give us some of the info we need to report to donors and potential donors."

An anonymous participant agreed: "Evaluating outcomes. Answering the 'so what?' questions. If 1500 women come through our programs, what is the longer term impact. What has changed, been changed, or added that build community."

Other management issues participants cited included "change management" ("I've found too many non-profits whose battle cry is 'We always did it that way' and more emphasis needs to be place on training leadership to think outside the box"); "taking on too many new initiatives without adequate resources (HR, capital, etc.)"; and "burnout of our talented, committed senior staff."

Getting the Word Out About Us and What We Do

Some types of programs appear harder to publicize than others. "We work with the mentally ill in our community and we have a very difficult time getting any of the media interested in our press releases," wrote Sabrina Blaylock of the Breakthrough Club. "They have said next to Religion—Mental Illness is a very sensitive subject," Janet Humphrey of the World Burn Foundation stated, "Approximately six million people die from burns and another 30 million are injured by burns a year throughout the world. The press does not cover this as it is so common."

Barbara Barnholtz noted that limited resources hamper the communications efforts of Jewish Family & Children's Services. "Our Development office has 2 people—the Director and a database manager. Our organization doesn't have the budget to hire P.R./Marketing person."

Lack of expertise prevents one nonprofit from publicizing its efforts: "I have found that because we are a very small volunteer animal rescue group with limited knowledge in what kinds of resources are available to help us, we continue to stagnate on a certain level of what we actually can accomplish. If we could find ways to get exposure (free)—I am sure we would be able to procure proficient volunteers to help in areas of this organization that, as of right now, are simply not being addressed. (i.e. organizing fundraisers, getting corporate donations, grant writing, graphic designing for our web page, writing newsletters, etc.)."

David Sabolcik noted that the University of New Mexico Lobo Club's challenge is getting the right word out: "Even though we ... are a well-known entity there are many misconceptions that we battle (i.e. we are an exclusive 'club' for the rich) and just an overall lack of understanding about exactly what we do (raise money for athletic scholarships), and conversely do not do (pay coaches salaries), that exist."

Suzanne E. Coffman, April 2005
© 2005, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's director of communications and editor of the Newsletter.
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