In the last article I began describing the twelve characteristics of the most successful nonprofit organizations, which was based on my dissertation research at Vanderbilt University. The first six characteristics related to personal communications and the depth of ongoing conversations nonprofits have with major donors (see Something to Talk About; Six Conversations That You Need to Have With Major Donors). The next six characteristics of the most successful nonprofits are generally related to leadership and administration — how they managed and directed their respective organizations.
PIECES OF THE ORGANIZATIONAL MOSAIC
The best way to describe a successful organization is to see it as a mosaic. Let’s assume that the four sides of the frame for the mosaic are 1) excellent leadership, 2) an appealing mission to change lives, 3) dedicated staff, and 4) high visibility among a community of people who want to support. Those four basic sides of the frame are very important; in fact, they are the essential foundation. However, the frame is not the picture. There are at least a dozen pieces to the mosaic of a successful nonprofit in fundraising. The more pieces of the mosaic a nonprofit has in place, the more complete the picture of success becomes.
The remaining six strategic and organizational imperatives that are characteristic of the most successful nonprofits are continued here/below.
7. THE ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations had a systematic, methodical approach. They knew what they were doing and where they were going. The fundraising goals were indeed challenging, but strategy and tactics were clear and the outcomes were achievable. Development office job descriptions were current and meaningful, defining positions in a way that supported and complemented others. They were constantly working on these organizational mechanics in order to fine-tune the machinery of fundraising. In short, they had a system and they worked it.
The most successful organizations maintained the flexibility and creativity to become classic learning organizations.
By contrast, organizations struggled when there were overlaps or gaps in job descriptions, when objectives were unrealistic, when resources were limited, and/or when there was no clear strategy. For many nonprofits, this is simply a matter of maturity. They haven’t been around long enough to work though all those systemic issues. However, by that simple calculus, the older the organization the more successful and systematic it should be. And, we all know it doesn’t work like that.
OBSERVATION: While organizations need time to learn, that doesn’t mean it will happen. The most successful organizations maintained the flexibility and creativity to become classic learning organizations.
8. THE ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations managed their objectives with Done-By-Dates (DBD). This may sound like a staff issue, but it is really more about leadership. Setting unreachable goals simply because someone arbitrarily determines, “This is what we need to raise,” is a self-destructive practice. Some leaders are relentlessly aggressive with timelines and fundraising goals, assuming that setting high standards will automatically motivate (or terrify) everyone involved. Unreasonable, or uninformed, leadership goals often have the opposite effect. Some staff will begin looking for another job because they feel they are being set up to fail. Others will simply begin ignoring DBDs because they are so rarely achieved, becoming meaningless.
Goals have to be aggressive enough to challenge and motivate, but conservative enough to create confidence in on-time performance. One of the overall objectives for successful leaders is to create a culture of accomplishment.
One of the overall objectives for successful leaders is to create a culture of accomplishment.
OBSERVATION: Senior leaders at the most successful organizations seem to intentionally create this culture of belief and accomplishment. Consequently, staff love to work for these organizations. Perhaps, the most important assets required for highly successful organizations are aggressive, crazy-confident development executives who have been there a long, long time.
9. THE ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations held the entire development team accountable. Managers kept short accounts with fundraising and support staff. By “short accounts,” I mean that they didn’t wait until the end of the year to measure performance. Too much was riding on each team member’s performance. Fundraisers were held accountable with small steps along the way, not just with the end results. See Great by Choice; Twenty-Mile Marching for Non-Profits.
They were also held accountable for activities (number of calls, visits, or touches), not just outcomes (dollars raised). After all, one could have one great year followed by a less than great year due to outside influences (e.g. bad economy, death of major donor, etc.).
OBSERVATION: Accountability is not just a time clock and a measuring stick. It is more about personal character and organizational culture. At the most successful organizations, that translates to great staff who are accountable and great leaders who set the standards by their example.
10. ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations communicated with each donor by phone, letter, and in person. This sounds like one of the conversational characteristics from the last article, but this is a little different. This is more of an administrative function than a conversation. The most successful organizations communicated with their donors in multiple formats/ways, and they charted out as many as a dozen donor touches each year. Some months some donors would receive newsletters, other months a call, other months a visit. One nonprofit required seven non-solicitation contacts for each appeal. The important aspect of that approach was not that seven was the magic number, though it might have been for them. The important thing was that development representatives didn’t simply make random visits or calls. There was a systematic plan behind each communication according to the donor’s giving level. None was overlooked.
The important thing was that development representatives didn’t simply make random visits or calls. There was a systematic plan . . .
OBSERVATION: Development representatives (myself included) tend to communicate with a small group of donors whose company and conversation they enjoy the most. Consequently, unplanned and uncoordinated donor relations are almost always the result. This translates to many overlooked and under-appreciated donors.
11. The most successful organizations were aware of donor sensitivities about ownership and stewardship. That is to say that those organizations were hyper-diligent about expressing gratitude with an implied, if not stated, donor promise — that they would use donor contributions as efficiently and effectively as they possibly could. That does (not?) mean the organizations were miserly when it came to organizational resources or with staff compensation. It does mean, however, that in everything the organization did, they were always aware of whether it would be considered a wise use of donor assets.
There is (among many donors) a built-in appreciation for organizational effectiveness and, at the same time, a built-in skepticism about organizational efficiency.
OBSERVATION: Donors will often brag about the good work an organization does. However, those same donors are far less optimistic about how efficiently the organization is using the money. In other words, there’s a built-in appreciation for organizational effectiveness and, at the same time, a built-in skepticism about organizational efficiency. Consequently, whoever makes the best case for “wise use” is going to get the attention of “wise donors.”
12. ANALYSIS: The most successful organizations were donor-centered. Each nonprofit was true to their word when it came to being donor-centered. They place the personal goals and objectives of their supporters ahead of their interest. This is very difficult to do if you are only measured by how much money you raised. It is amazing that the organizations that put their donors’ needs ahead of their organizational needs were the most successful university development offices in the country.
OBSERVATION: You could say that they could do that because they were already established. However, they were established and successful precisely because their organizational cultures were donor-centered. See The Greatest Fundraiser of All.
Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.