I recently read an article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia) which really got me thinking about the way non-profit organizations present themselves to potential donors.

The piece was entitled “Prepare for Coming Fundraising Tsunami”, written by Charles F. Bryan Jr.

The central point of this article was summed up in this quote:

“If there are any doubts about the performance or strategic direction of a nonprofit, donors should carefully consider backing off until they know all is well.”

In order to help potential donors decide if a non-profit they were considering supporting fit the above criteria, the author offered these eight questions.

  1. What is the organization’s mission and how well is it serving the community?
  2. If it were to go out of business, would it make much difference in the community and would anyone care?
  3. Does it have a strong, united, and engaged governing board that works effectively as a team with management?
  4. Does it have a good record of board and management stability?
  5. How solid are the financial underpinnings of the organization — management of endowment; operating within budget; proven fundraising record; strong financial support from the local community; and no problems with cash flow?
  6. Does it know where it is going by having in place a well-crafted strategic plan?
  7. Am I confident that five years from now I will be glad that I made this gift, and that I didn’t “throw good money after bad?”
  8. Does the organization spend no more than 10 cents for every dollar it raises?

I think it would be wise for non-profit directors and managers to ask these questions about their own organizations, as if they were potential donors themselves. Based on the answers to these questions, would you give money to your own non-profit?

These are some rather pointed items to consider, although all of them are totally fair and worth asking. I know that at various times in my own non-profit career, I would not have been comfortable answering some of the above queries myself.

If you have been working at the same non-profit for a few years, it’s very easy to just accept your organization as it is, quirks and all. It’s easy to lose sight of how the public at large perceives you.

For years, I worked at a non-profit summer camp/retreat center, and we used to call this phenomenon “wearing our camp goggles”. There was this old metal container, about the size of a half barrel, that was sitting at the base of a big, sprawling tree. None of us knew what the container was, where it came from, or why it was put next to this particular tree. But, it pre-dated any of us there at the camp, so no one really ever questioned it. Year after year, there sat the barrel, and we all walked past it, without question.

Then one summer, a foreign exchange counselor noticed the container and asked what it was for. This stopped us cold. We all kind of shrugged our shoulders, scratched our heads, and looked around at each other, dumbfounded. It was as if he had asked us for nuclear launch codes. We had no clue.

If he had asked what our mission was, we could have recited it from memory. If he had asked about our budget, we could have printed off an up-to-date Profit & Loss statement on the spot. If he had asked about our board of directors, we could have listed all the ways we felt supported by them.

But somewhere over the course of time, we, those who worked at the camp full-time, had learned to ignore this rusty, old barrel. It came to the point where we really didn’t see it at all. It had become invisible. We had put on our “camp goggles”, only seeing the things we cared or wanted to see.

This is just a silly example of how the people in any organization can develop blind spots about themselves and their non-profit. However, sometimes it takes a total outsider (like our exchange counselor) to notice something blatantly obvious that makes no sense.

In this era, when non-profits are having to respond to a struggling economy and in many cases, reduced donations, we have to make sure we are convincing our potential donors that we have our acts together- in every area.

I encourage you to take a few minutes and ask yourself, your co-workers, and even some of your trusted donors to how your organization stands up to the questions posed above.

Photo By: Spaceodissey

Posted on 07 December 2010

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