“We’re in a unique situation,” this person says.
Silently, I roll my eyes.
Or maybe, “We have a unique problem.”
Actually, you don’t.
Apologies for the snark. During these conversations, I do my best to listen deeply, respond respectfully, and seek out the nuances of their circumstances. I ask a lot of questions. In some cases, people just want to vent—and I encourage that.
Regardless, these discussions tend to wind up in a predictable place: “Many, many other groups are facing the same challenges you’ve just described,” I say.
Most people find this comforting.
The five most common messes
Over the past 25 years, I’ve worked with thousands of nonprofits in 47 U.S. states and across Canada. Nearly all the problems they experience fall into one or more of these categories:
- Niche. The value of the organization and its work is poorly defined and communicated, or they’re duplicating the mission and services of other nonprofits.
- Scale. The size of the organization—budget, staffing, services—doesn’t align with the group’s mission, goals, and ambition.
- Governance. Board and staff roles are poorly defined. Founders and other long-term leaders are resistant to change. They do little or no long-term planning.
- Finances. They’re afflicted with poor financial management and limited oversight.
- Fundraising. The group has a narrow funding base and is overly dependent on government or institutional donors. Not enough people—board, staff, volunteers—are engaged in building donor relationships. (Note: a lack of money is often the “presenting symptom” that may indicate other problems outlined above.)
Let’s acknowledge that within and among these challenges, you can find an infinite number of variations and permutations. In that sense, yes: each organization can define its circumstances as unique.
However, let’s also acknowledge that nearly every nonprofit is navigating similar currents and trying to avoid the same whirlpools, rapids, and backwaters. Given this reality, comparable tools and techniques can be useful with a variety of groups.
When unique gets in the way
Earlier this year, I facilitated a fundraising workshop in a distant state. At the start of the session, one participant raised his hand and said,
“You need to understand our circumstances. This community is unique. We have a small population, lots of nonprofits, and we’re competing for the same donors. We have many seasonal residents—when they’re here, there are so many fundraising events that the weekends are packed.”
In his own way, he was expressing skepticism: Whatever you teach us may not be relevant, because our situation is uniquely difficult. He was unaware—until I gently responded—that he had just defined at least a dozen communities where I had previously trained and supported local nonprofits.
Here’s another version of the same behavior. A board member of a conservation land trust pushed me for examples of success from “exact peer” organizations: same budget size, staffing pattern, number of land protection projects, etc.
His unspoken idea: the experience of larger or smaller organizations—we’re talking about organizations within the land trust network, not to mention arts groups, universities, animal shelters, domestic violence prevention groups, religious congregations, etc.—would be somehow irrelevant.
They’re called “best practices” for a reason
The obsession with uniqueness masks a troubling train of thought. When followed to its logical conclusion, it sounds something like this: Because we’re different, the rules don’t apply to us.
- We don’t need term limits on our board, because our leadership is uniquely qualified. No one else can adequately replace them/us.
- We don’t need to diversify our funding, because that big grant will be renewed forever—and we can avoid the icky task of asking our friends to give.
- We don’t need financial controls or separation of duties, because nobody involved in OUR organization would ever embezzle money. (Until they do.)
- We don’t need to partner with other groups, because partnership will dilute our unique brand—and besides, we’re all competing for the same donors. (Hint: maybe you can raise more money together than you can separately.)
Someone has been there before you
If you face challenges, it’s helpful to know how others have addressed similar problems.
If you’re considering opportunities to grow your organization, it’s useful to learn about how other groups have responded in similar situations.
Put your ego aside. Whatever you’re up against, somebody—somewhere—has been there before you. What can you learn from their experience?
This post is reprinted from the Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money Blog.
Andy Robinson is author of How to Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone; What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money (co-authored with Andrea Kihlstedt); and The Board Member’s Easier Than You Think Guide to Nonprofit Finances (co-authored with Nancy Wasserman).