Non-Profits Trade Settling for Success

Written by Carol Coughlin. Posted in Operations Management

Spring: a perfect time to consider new growth, to renew your sense of optimism, to revitalize your energy, and to nail down your non-profit budget with the help from a Part Time CFO. It’s like a record scratching to a halt, isn’t it! But this is a critical period for non-profits: an opportunity to think strategically about the year ahead and how you will fund your mission – and an opportunity to renew the tips in this article.

Succeeding…or Settling?

The non-profit arena is tough. The competition for donor dollars, the need to satisfy diverse stakeholders, the struggle to keep volunteers, not to mention the pressure to achieve a serious social mission, can all foster frustration for organizational leadership. Directors and board members must often perform without the essential resources required for success.

While working in a challenging environment can certainly inspire greatness, it can also inspire something not so great. Mediocrity.

Now, let’s be very clear. We are not talking about mediocre performances from the director, staff, or board. We are talking about the reality that non-profits sometimes become so used to “the struggle” that they begin to believe they’re not supposed to get the best – and as a result, they don’t demand it.

“Just” a Non-Profit

“We can’t afford to hire a top-notch financial strategist. We’re not a business, we’re JUST a non-profit.”

“We can’t put aside cash reserves. We’re not a business, we’re JUST a non-profit.”

“We can’t demand timely financial reporting. We’re not a business, we’re JUST a non-profit.”

If this perspective has wormed its way into your non-profit, there’s only one way to stop settling and end the struggle: JUST start thinking like a business.

The good news is that, more and more, non-profits are seeking to operate and think like for-profit corporations. Whether you run a non-profit or sit on a board or two, it’s up to you to the lead the charge in your organization. The question is how?

In our work helping non-profits implement best practices in their financial strategies, we encourage leadership to examine the similarities between their organization and for-profit businesses. We’ve found that when this is done, the mindset shift comes easily. After all, non-profits and for-profits have more in common than what might immediately come to mind:

#1: Both non-profits & for-profits are on a mission

Non-profits are mission-driven. They serve a clear purpose and address a specific societal need. In realizing their mission, they make change. Well-run for-profits also have a clear purpose and address a specific marketplace need. In realizing their mission, they make money.

#2: Both non-profits & for-profits need cash

Well-run non-profits need a positive bottom line and positive net assets in order to build reserves. A best practice is to have at least six months’ worth of reserves to survive a bad year. For-profits need reserves for the same reason.

#3: Both non-profits & for-profits need to get their eggs out of a single basket                              

A single customer should account for no more than 25% of revenue. If one client dominates at a for-profit, so does risk (lost revenue, potential downsizing, etc.). Non-profits, too, must be wary of concentration risk. If a large chunk of funding comes from a single source or event, what happens when the economy softens?

#4: Both non-profits & for-profits must get tough

Non-profits and for-profits must be willing to make tough business decisions to avoid dipping into reserves. For-profits are asked to make these kinds of decisions every day, but non-profits can find it difficult thanks to the caring, people-centered atmosphere typically fostered. When it’s time to make a tough decision, it can help to remember that the mission must come first.

#5: Both non-profits & for-profits need to impress the money people

In the for-profit world, investors fund a company’s growth. They have a vested interest in operations and in ROI. Grantors and donors are the investors of the non-profit world, and they have the same concerns. They want to know if the organization is a good steward of its financial resources and whether funding is making a difference in achieving the mission.

#6: Both non-profits & for-profits need to be strategic

Non-profit and for-profit companies must think long-term and big picture. The competition in both arenas is too fierce not to have figured out the organization’s unique position and where it can make the biggest difference. Both need a strategic plan.

#7: Both non-profits & for-profits need to have a plan for handing over the reins

Non-profits and for-profits rely on great leadership. Just like for-profits, non-profits need succession plans to cover key executive directors, as well as board members charged with strategically fulfilling the mission.

Once a non-profit’s leadership is thinking like a business team, all kinds of misconceptions about what a non-profit can or should do disappear.

For example, a budget of $70K will afford a highly qualified part-time CFO, but not much of a full-time one. Because there is a common misconception that non-profits should hire only full-time positions, the director may have settled for an accountant rather than the CFO he or she really needed. But with business thinking and creativity in place, the path that will lead to success is the only logical choice.

There is no such thing as “just” a non-profit. These organizations provide vital services to their communities, fulfilling a serious social mission. They deserve the best – the best professional advice, the best financial strategies, the best shot at success. Just start thinking like a business, and just get it all for your non-profit.

Read a case study about how BottomLine Growth helped a non-profit reduce costs and hire a CFO during a time of transition:

“When we were contemplating a difficult and major re-structure of management, BottomLine Growth Strategies helped us to develop a plan that ensured our success. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Contact Carol about setting your non-profit up for success today.

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Carol Coughlin

Carol Coughlin founded BottomLine Growth Strategies, Inc., in 2006 as a way for small and medium-sized businesses to access the same high-level financial and operational expertise that gives large companies a distinct advantage. Using her own extensive corporate experience and willingness to sit in the hot seat as a catalyst, Carol helps BottomLine Growth clients climb to the summit of their success.
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