The Face of Non-profits is Changing

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Many non-profits across the country are going to have to learn to be “shape-shifters”. As state and federal dollars decrease and the future of charitable giving incentives, Medicare and Medicaid are on the chopping block, many boards and management teams are beginning to worry – but there’s another way to process this information.

Economy issues aren’t going away so some non-profits have begun to adapt. Community programs for vulnerable populations are finally learning to step outside the box and the traditional mold. The boards of large agencies are working more in partnership with professional staff, closer to how a hospital or vo-tech might run. Boards of Directors and staff are also looking for new affiliations, funding sources and unique ideas to set their agency and its story apart.

Community agencies who serve people with disabilities are lucky; their mission is training and employing people with disabilities. So if those opportunities don’t exist, they can create them. When the donations and state funds aren’t there, a community agency must learn to go outside its comfort zone, to be more entrepreneurial and to find its uncontested market space.

Agencies can no longer survive on donations and bake sales and can’t continue to depend on just volunteers to run the agency. Running a quality agency has become a sophisticated business. Non-profits that want to thrive and grow should be prepared to hire consultants in public relations, marketing, and/or legal services because many businesses can no longer afford to donate professional services without any payment. Paying even a discounted rate for these services gives non-profits more assurance that the final product will be exactly what they need.

Non-profits should provide incentives and benefits to their staff based on common sense and community standards. They should try to hire experienced, degreed managers with a history of success and keep them. Boards of Directors should want to hire and keep the best administrators to partner with. They should consider creating innovative types of funding, branding, unique partnerships, or producing alternative side businesses that add legitimate, business related income in accordance with their mission. Any profits earned would go right back into the budget to support the population served.

If the agency continues to meet its mission and has controlled growth as well as a positive reputation which allows the agency to flourish, the Board of Directors should continue to support their professional staff and leadership. Too many non-profits get caught in the “founders trap” where the founder doesn’t have the skills to take the agency to the next level or an agency is turning over their executive director every two to four years. Speaking from experience, and I may be a slow learner, but it took me ten to fifteen years of working closely with the Board and consultants to get Dale Rogers’ programs, staff, communications, budget and strategic planning goals where they are now. We’re finally ready to fly!

All of this is to say – don’t panic, EVOLVE. Examine your mission carefully; key management and board members should consult books like Blue Ocean Strategy, Your Marketing Sucks, Failing Forward, Freakonomics, Generations, A Whole New Mind, Blink, Switch, and/or The Oz Principal. They give new perspective to old topics.

Have brainstorming sessions between your board and key staff as part of your Strategic Planning. Hire people who know things you don’t, seek out consultants (and pay them). United Way and the Center for Non-Profits are two of several entities who provide training for staff and board members (some for free). If you don’t have professional staff or an experienced Board of Directors who know the non-profit world, consider going through their Standards for Excellence program (four half days over four months).

Lastly, many books and seminars about non-profits still adhere to the old stereotype of a small-medium non-profit with a relatively new director and a small-medium size board of directors who help run the operations instead of the more complicated tasks involved in oversight and risk assessment. There are so many rules and regulations which non-profits have to operate under now that volunteers at some agencies need legal degrees, no personal life and full-time availability to track them all. Don’t be afraid to read management and marketing books written for businesses – the principals are the same or similar. Look for similar agencies across the United States and become e-mail friends with their administration or board. Most important, take risks and don’t be afraid to fail on some level. John Maxwell, author of Failing Forward, will tell you that the difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure. I think the same can be said for the key management and boards of non-profits. Start with one toe in the water, the rest will evolve.

Connie Thrash McGoodwin, M. Ed.
Executive Director

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