It’s been more than 20 years since Dr. Loraine Hale, president of a children’s shelter in Harlem, pleaded guilty to diverting more than a million dollars of donated funds for personal use. The scandal was the apparent spark that led Pat Dugan to launch Charity Navigator, believing there was no good way for the average donor to determine if money given to a charity would be well and appropriately used.
There have been many similar scandals since, at the United way and others. And while charitable organizations are trusted more than other institutions(businesses, governments, and the news media), about half of those surveyed think nonprofits are “on the wrong track” and only a third believe charities “contribute a lot to society.”
Perhaps that is one of several reasons that as of mid-year 2023, Americans had given the lowest percentage of disposable income since 1995. This has been accompanied by a decline in the number of Americans who give.
Whatever the cause(s), our diminished trust in charities (and institutions more broadly), puts pressure on those nonprofits that depend on donations to do their work.
Sharpen Your Strategy
In an environment where trust is low, it is especially important for your organization to have a clear strategy – one that is focused on the impact your nonprofit seeks to have and that is clearly communicated to stakeholders.
For those who operate in the nonprofit space and know in their hearts that the work they do is important, the value of the work may seem obvious. But from an outsider’s perspective, the connection between the activities of a given nonprofit and its impact may be much less apparent.
A lack of strategic clarity can be made worse when organizations launch additional programs or activities that, while begun with the best of intentions, can sometimes serve to distract from the core mission of the organization or dilute the impact of its core activities. More undertakings also make it harder for the nonprofit to effectively communicate its strategic focus and impact to prospective donors – a risky situation in light of recent trends.
If you find yourself faced with these types of challenges, here are some tactical suggestions you can implement right away.
1. Revisit your organization’s mission.
Pull together your senior team to discuss your mission. Ask each member to define the primary mission of your organization — then see how similar the answers are.
Particularly in organizations with multi-faceted missions, I have seen wide divergence among leaders about what is most important. This lack of consensus can impact the effectiveness of the organization, both in how it operates and in how its beliefs and priorities are communicated to key stakeholders.
2. Expand the discussion internally.
Have these same conversations with staff who are on the front lines of your programmatic work. They tend to have the clearest view about what’s really happening.
Do they have the same view about mission priorities and a clear understanding of how each activity contributes to the desired outcomes as does your senior leadership? Do they feel that the most important activities are being supported sufficiently?
In my courses at BU, we often take a mid-semester check and ask students what is working for them. We use a simple framework of “stop-start-continue” as it relates to various activities, asking them to help us make adjustments as needed.
3. Expand the discussion externally.
Reach out to those who benefit from your services. Ask them about their most important needs and how your services are helping (or not). Ask if their needs have evolved or changed in the past year and what they anticipate for the future.
Do your best here to listen, rather than defend. You’ve no doubt invested a lot in setting up your various tactics, but if those for whom they are intended do not see the value, it may be time for a different approach.
4. Reflect on what you learn and take action.
You may find some “low hanging fruit” where there are common views on what immediate steps you can take to sharpen your organization’s focus or better communicate its priorities.
You may also discover, depending on how much alignment you find (or don’t find) through these conversations, that you need to revisit your strategy and make significant changes.
Strategy is about making choices regarding what you will do or not do given your (always) limited time and resources. These choices are then reflected in resource allocations — what activities you undertake and what resources you fund to support those activities.
Often, and particularly for smaller organizations, a sharper focus on fewer activities can lead to greater impact towards your organization’s mission, something that is more important than ever in the face of current trends.