Why Your Non-Profit Refuses To Grow And How You Can Fix It

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Having spent the past several years working with non-profits, I’ve seen a glaring issue that is literally preventing major growth in both fundraising potential and brand awareness.

This issue is also one of the leading reasons why for-profit small businesses fail within their first year and why so many aspiring entrepreneurs will remain in a state of aspiration instead of achieving their life-long goal of professional independence and making their mark on the world.

Let’s call it out, shall we?

The major issue, and I would say the primary issue that prevents non-profits from growing, is the fact that so many individuals within them cannot identify the flags on the road that leads to burn out. More importantly, why those flags appear and how they can be prevented all together.

Burn-out is a major reason why non-profits don’t grow, but there are also a list of other issues that will lead your non-profit down the road to failure and spontaneous combustion.

Why Your Non-Profit Isn’t Growing

Here are a few considerations that I guarantee are preventing your non-profit from growing:

  1. Accepting false truth. Many non-profits think that everything is normal all the time and, well, “…this is the way it’s always been, so why change anything?” Accepting the false truth that processes, programs and systems are timeless is completely — well — false. Time stops for no man, including those who fail to acknowledge that external environments, as well as constituents, change in mission, motive and demographic constantly. This is why accepting the false truth of believing that systems should never change will prevent your non-profit from growing.
  2. Lack of self-awareness. As a result of accepting false truths, many individuals in non-profits lack the ability to look inward at their own, personal short comings, and also within their own organization to complete projects. As an example, basing organizational decisions off of internal or external relationships with those you work with as opposed to experience, education and prior data or results will hurt a non-profit’s growth exponentially.
  3. Too much vendor dependency. As many non-profits lack the knowledge to build programs or the funding to hire internal team members to build programs, they spend an astronomical amount of money on external, third-party sources to do their work for them and don’t even realize it. Always stop and do the math. This will not only prevent a non-profit from growing, but will also drain the organization’s piggy bank. Too much vendor dependency also hurts a non-profit’s growth by missing the opportunity to connect with local members of the community who have a better grasp of the need or demand of your targeted constituent base.
  4. Lack of professional growth opportunities. It is extremely important that every member of a non-profit is aware of current trends and information pertaining to their target audience as well as the world that their non-profit does and does not live in. A huge reason why non-profits don’t grow is because they invest little to no time and/or money into professional development, or they invest too much and fail to implement what they’ve learned. It’s important to find balance between the two.

So, you may be thinking, “Wow. Great. You’ve just identified topics that I already know are issues within our organization, so how do I fix any of these things?”

Great question!

Let’s break them down one by one to explain how to fix issues that lead to burn out.

Self-Awareness Prevents the Acceptance of False Truth

Photo by John Sting on Unsplash

Being self-aware, or taking time to examine yourself and your motives, is extremely important. You will avoid accepting false truth if you become more self aware — but, easier said than done, right?

In order for an effective change to happen in a non-profit, self-awareness must begin at the executive leadership level.

However, how many executives do you know that work for non-profits that are interested in actually growing or changing themselves or their organization for the better? They talk about it enough but still no action, right?

Sarah McLaughlin commercials with crying puppies aside — very, very few. In larger non-profits (and even small, local ones), political games are played at the highest levels — even more so than what I’ve seen from major for-profit companies. This happens because, in my opinion, non-profit leaders have twice as much to lose by failing as for-profit leaders do.

This happens specifically because they have accepted false truth for so long that they’ve become detached from the outside world and fail to stay relevant in their profession.

Think about it.

If Tammy is an executive for a large, state-wide non-profit and is a marketer, but she’s failed to read up on industry trends and apply new concepts, she’ll lose her professional worth in about six months.

Yep, in marketing, that’s all it takes — just a few months to become irrelevant and outdated on your understanding and application of implementing campaigns.

So, what if Tammy has been at that specific non-profit for over ten years?

She has a lot to protect, including her job, because she may have a much more difficult time finding another one if she loses what she has due to a perceived failure or change of method.

She’ll also insulate herself by creating a team of direct reports that are either “yes-men” or individuals who know much less than she does. This leaves little room for self reflection and awareness.

This also makes self awareness challenging to implement and false truth difficult to replace — however, it can be done.

If self awareness isn’t displayed and practiced at the executive level, farther down the ladder will not have an example to also change their thinking and behavior by.

The goal of self awareness is to understand that sometimes “I” am the problem — not those around me. This is the only way to provide incredible transparency and achieve actual growth.

Here are some easy tips to practice self awareness:

Find an honest friend. Find someone who you trust and does not work with you to hold you accountable for your faults and mistakes. Let them tell you everything, not just what you want to hear. Make them grab you a drink if they think it will be a hard pill to swallow — but do it.

Always accept constructive criticism and do something with it. Don’t just nod your head when someone makes a helpful suggestion to you that may make you take a step back in surprise. Listen to them and apply what they’re telling you — even if it comes from someone who works for you, not with you.

Encourage transparency in the workplace. It’s up to you to be the catalyst for change where you work. If you want to see growth in your non-profit, encourage transparency and be honest with one another. This could even lead to a more comfortable work environment.

It’s important to take all of these points into consideration, but also necessary to read the point I’ve made next.

Vendors Will Slowly Kill Your Growth

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

Whoa — I just went there.

Almost every non-profit I’ve worked with has had a slew of vendors up their sleeves as “back-up” for when they believe they need extra help.

When I see a vendor contract, it reminds me of someone having an “Easy” button from Staples.

The non-profit executive leader just signs on the dotted line and all their problems go away — at an extremely high cost.

Vendors are not your friends. They are a necessary stepping stone for growth, but not a permanent solution and certainly are not the answer to your non-profit’s growth problems.

Like a software program, vendors are only as good as the direction, structure and accountability that you build into them and hold them accountable to deliver on.

The mistake that so many non-profits make is they completely rely on vendors for everything and rarely challenge their results.

This is extremely dangerous as “results”, if not defined in advance, can be bent and molded into anything to show justification.

When you rely on vendors to do the “dirty work” for your non-profit, here is what you’re actually doing:

Creating a crutch that will not help you heal. The goal of any vendor or service provider is to keep your contract open and running as long as humanly possible. Why? Well, even though you’re a non-profit, they’re not.

They want your money and will tell you anything to keep it. This will not help your non-profit grow, but will rather make it atrophied.

Focus on hiring well and paying a decent wage to have a cause-focused person work with you.

Not only will the overhead cost be a fraction of the vendor’s total cost, but you’ll have a dedicated, in-person, cause-ambassador working to only focus on your growth.

Allowing yourself to become lazy and your non-profit irrelevant. The longer you’re out of the game, the harder it will be for you to reclaim your fame.

Despite my poor attempt at rhyming, the point is still valid.

Don’t become so out of touch with what your vendor is doing that you’re not even sure how they’re hitting the metrics you’ve attempted to set for them.

In this scenario, micro-management is a good thing. It’s your right to hover, demand answers and ask uncomfortable questions.

If you don’t, and you let them run with things, your non-profit will be just a number in their portfolio and not a name that deserves a unique, branded go-to-market strategy.

Funny (Or Not So Funny) Story Alert!!

Photo by Braydon Anderson on Unsplash

I’ll never forget working with a non-profit on the east coast and deciding to sign up for what I would consider to be “competitor” emails from rival non-profits who provided the same services that we did.

Our non-profit had been working with a very large, national vendor for several months and we were told that we had been provided with a unique marketing plan that would grow our donor base and help us optimize our weak branding.

After signing up for competitor emails, it took me no less than a few days to see that it was obvious that these competitors were either listening to the “strategy” calls we were having, or they had telepathic abilities and had almost exactly replicated our email design and cadence.

Wow — what a shock!

You mean to tell me that my organization was paying out the nose for a “strategy” and that “strategy” was really a cookie-cutter campaign that was being sold to other non-profits as well?

Yep — welcome to working with vendors. That’s what they do. You are not and will never be a unique organization. You are merely a source fortheir bank roll.

When you hire a team of dedicated, competent cause-ambassadors, you will always have fresh ideas and the full attention of activists who will help you grow your non-profit.

Don’t ever settle for second best, be realistic and make it a point to not only hire great people, but provide them with the ability to grow and add more value to your organization.

If you’re still into vendors, take some advice (here’s that constructive criticism coming your way…).

To avoid a catastrophe, read more here to learn about how to vet your vendors and hold them accountable.

Finally writing for pleasure instead of employment.

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