What a Successful Nonprofit Looks Like


There are many ways to define success for a nonprofit. At the heart of a nonprofit’s operations are, of course, its mission. How many people are being cured? How many trees are being saved? Kids being taught? Lives being changed?

There are so many more components to the success of a nonprofit. Lately, there has been great discussion in the sector surrounding overhead costs. Aptly called the overhead myth, this conversation points out the narrow-minded nature of assuming that overhead costs don’t equate to productivity. Of course we can all agree that super high overhead costs that are out of control are inappropriate, we should also all agree that some administrative costs are essential for nonprofit organizations to run efficiently and effectively. In order for an organization to succeed, it must have good systems and processes, no matter whether nonprofit or for-profit. It’s a balancing act. I whole-heartedly agree.

I recently came across this blog post on Philanthropy News Digest (a service of the Foundation Center) that takes the argument to the next level. The author states that while it is important for us to continue the overhead myth conversation, it’s essential to also consider what she calls “nonprofit resiliency.” She makes the bold statements that not only must nonprofits do good work and have efficient operations, but they also must take risks and develop innovative new approaches. I absolutely love the suggestions and points she makes in the post, and I strongly recommend it.

“While nonprofits bear responsibility for communicating their true, comprehensive financial resource needs, funders can lead by encouraging business models that reliably cover full costs and supporting capital structures that are sufficiently liquid. Our sector’s ability to truly solve pressing social challenges hangs in the balance.” – Rebecca Thomas, Nonprofit Finance Fund



My Top Three Fundraising Tips

Most people fill their days off with hours of reality television, shopping, and sleeping in. Not me (OK, I did sleep in a few days last week!). Last Thursday morning I ventured to San Francisco to Foundation Center to participate in the very informative Top Ten Fundraising Tips by Darian Rodriguez Heyman, the editor of Nonprofit Management 101 (which I was lucky enough to purchase an autographed copy of!). Darian gave a great talk reviewing some tips outlined in the book, a compilation of input from various experts in the field. He started with a very poignant anecdote about Bill Cosby’s grandmother’s view of whether a glass is half empty or half full – her response was, “it depends on if you’re pouring or drinking!”

Darian gave ten tips for fundraising, and I’d like to highlight my three favorite tips that he reviewed.

1. Stage a Thank-a-Thon. Fundraising isn’t all about asking for money. It includes everything from prospecting, to stewarding, to asking, to thanking. Darian posed this as a way to get your board engaged in the fundraising process – print out a simple script for board members (and I would add other volunteers who can speak eloquently about your organization), have some pizza, and schedule an hour after work one day where everyone can gather and make calls to say thanks – without asking for money. It’s a win-win situation for your board, your donors, and you.

2. Never Submit a Cold Grant. This point really can relate to anyone from whom you’re asking for money, not just grantors. Funding is all about relationships, and that includes grants. Just because the grantor doles out thousands of dollars each year doesn’t mean you have to be afraid to talk to them. Most of them prefer you talk to them. Get in touch with the Program Officer and ask for advice on your application. Darian went so far as to suggest asking them to review your application – I’ve never done that, but he’s had proven success doing it! Doing this causes them to mentally adopt your project, even if they never actually review it.

3. Utilize the Upcoming Volunteerism Revolution. OK, so I took liberty on changing one of his tip titles with this one, but this was a point he made. Volunteerism is moving toward people truly wanting to be part of the solution, and they don’t just want to stuff envelopes – they want to leverage their skills and expertise in helping you. Keep this in mind when engaging your volunteer force.

I’d like to end with one more point Darian made that really resonated with me – people don’t give to you, they give through you. People are giving to the impact you make. Fundraising isn’t personal to the fundraiser, it’s personal to the donor. They are connected to the change your nonprofit is making. You’re just the middle man.


P.S. I’m so excited that I can just pop over to events in San Francisco now! The city is full of nonprofit activity. Here’s a photo I took while stuck in traffic after the event!