By Sean Malone and Erika Kent
"Does this program meet a real need in the community?" "Are we the best organization to offer it?" "What are the real costs and can we fund them?" Nonprofit programs, operations, and funding are complicated. Just like for-profit organizations (if not considerably more so), they require exceptional focus, discipline, operational efficiency, governance, professional expertise, and strategic decision-making. Unlike for-profits, however, nonprofit organizations also have a fundamental obligation to benefit the public, to have a positive impact on people’s lives. And that obligation can be powerfully clarifying.
I use this simple Venn Diagram as a lens to help determine what my organization should be doing and what we should stop doing (what current programs or activities should be eliminated).
What Deep Meaningful Needs Exist? By definition, a need is unmet, something that no other organizational or entity is (fully) addressing. Whether the need is “deep and meaningful” can be assessed by the number of people affected and/or the depth of their need. Consider how you and other community leaders would rank the need on a scale of “the most important need the community has” to “of no importance whatsoever.”
Which of Those Needs is the Organization Uniquely Positioned to Meet? What unique combination of strengths and assets does the organization bring to the table? What mix of facilities, expertise, networks, geographic reach, financial and other resources, existing programs and infrastructure, etc. positions the organization to meet the identified need(s) better than any other organization or entity? (As business writer Jim Collins puts it so well, "what can you be best in the world at?")
What Activities are Sustainable? What is the true and full cost of the activity (or activities) intended to address the identified need(s)? Is the organization able to match or exceed that cost through program revenue and/or contributions?
In my experience, the programs or aspirations that a nonprofit should pursue or continue fall entirely and only in the small center of the diagram - right on that star. The greatest possible public-benefit impact we can have is to meet a deep, meaningful, unmet need, that we are uniquely positioned to meet, and that we are able to fund/sustain. This lens can be applied to decisions both big and small – from assessing and rewriting an organization’s core mission/purpose, down to evaluating a new low-budget program idea.
Things that are "easy, but . . .":
- It’s easy to get excited by a program that meets a deep, meaningful, unmet need. But if my organization is not uniquely positioned to meet the need better than another organization or entity, then it is not the right organization to do it. We steward donor gifts and community trust, and we need to be very focused in how we use both. Additionally, if it’s not sustainable through program revenue and/or contributions, then how can we effectively accomplish it without putting the organization in (long-term) financial peril?
- It’s easy to get excited by a program that takes advantage of a unique asset or capability of the organization. Such programs often feel clever and exciting – something we’re great at, something innovative. But if it isn’t addressing a deep, meaningful, unmet need – then why should we, a nonprofit that exists to serve and to create public benefit, be doing it? And again, if it’s not financially sustainable, it’s irresponsible to take it on.
- And it’s easy to get excited about a program that might generate significant revenue. But, if it’s doesn’t meet a public need, then it’s unrelated business. Unrelated business is sometimes appropriate for a nonprofit. But if we’re going to engage in it, we need to do so knowing that it is outside our purpose, something we to do fund the programs that do hit the center of our lens. And we need to make sure that we really are uniquely positioned to do it better than any competitor. Money-driven endeavors fail far more often than they succeed; there’s actually very little “low-hanging fruit” in a free market economy. So unless it’s an obvious slam-dunk funding source (that doesn’t have hidden costs, taking resources away from mission-driven activities), we’re better off focusing on things that meet unmet needs, and happen to generate revenue as well.
This model has served me well in working with staff and board leadership – as the starting line for the rest of our work together. It helps ensure that we stay true to our reason for being – to serve, to create public benefit. It sets us up to easily answer “what are we ultimately trying to accomplish, and why?”. It offers a lens through which we can articulate a clear and compelling mission, long-term objectives, strategies to achieve those objectives, and plans to realize those strategies. And it gives us the foundation for effective messaging, successful fundraising, disciplined leadership and governance, and exceptional execution of programs that serve.