Nonprofits Face Big Challenges

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A Q&A with nonprofit executive Judy Mitchell


From communicating their mission, to providing outreach and support, to adopting new technologies, nonprofits must compete with for-profits to make themselves heard. CW Bulletin asked Gillian Silver-Rodis, ABC, Ph.D., who recently completed a comprehensive study of leadership among 501(c )(3) executive directors, to interview a nonprofit director and to share this person’s insight on what nonprofits need to do to stay ahead of the curve. Silver-Rodis spoke with veteran nonprofit executive Judy Mitchell, who has 28 years of experience with organizations like the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society about the unique challenges facing nonprofits. Mitchell is a consultant to nonprofits, advising them on how to create corporate partnerships and develop boards of trustees.

Q: What unique challenges do nonprofits face in these changing economic times?
Dwindling dollars and the availability of support provide, by far, the largest obstacle that nonprofits of all sizes face. Traditionally, national and local charitable organizations have depended on small donations from many individuals and, as a result, many have experienced tremendous growth over a short span of time. Nonprofits spend most of their time and money acquiring new donors rather than cultivating and keeping the ones they already have. Once someone gives, nonprofits have a poor record in securing a larger gift and gaining the donor’s loyalty. This should be reversed if nonprofits are to continue to grow, especially through hard economic times.

Q: So how do charitable organizations address this challenge?
Donor cultivation is key. Nonprofits that are successfully managed are now directing their efforts to cultivating relationships. It is important for nonprofits to establish relationships with donors to encourage repeat donations in larger increments. If the nonprofit doesn’t emphasize this important role, they will lose potential long-term interest and support.

Q: Why would a nonprofit not pursue a long-term connection with a donor, especially corporate donors?
The key to this answer is the phrase “long-term.” Having a connection or relationship with a donor takes time and consistency. Nonprofits are often dependent on immediate dollars to continue their mission. They must strike a balance between the acquisition of new dollars and sustaining support from those who are already giving. This means having a relationship with the donor—getting to know the donor and vice-versa. High staff turnover is another reality that plagues nonprofits, and it also has a devastating effect on this process. Each time a nonprofit loses a key staffer, it takes a step backwards in the process.

Q: Are there any communication-related obstacles nonprofits need to overcome?
Yes. Nonprofits are often prevented from securing paid advertising because of the high cost, though advertising can help them to become known in the business community. This is also an area that remains understaffed in many nonprofits—the function is usually given to volunteers. Nonprofits should consider the strategic placement of staff who are responsible for getting information out to the public about what they do and their need for financial support.

Q: Would you consider the need to continually raise funds to be the primary difference between nonprofits and corporations?
Yes. For-profits gain loyalty by selling a product or service their customers want. They gain loyalty by knowing they can work on quality to get people to keep coming back and by delivering great value for their money. Huge marketing budgets also help to gain customer loyalty. Nonprofits rely on word-of-mouth and the goodwill of the clients they serve. They change lives whether through the services they provide or the research being conducted. Every dollar brought in is spent, to a great degree, on the mission rather than gaining customer loyalty.

Q: So how does a nonprofit distinguish itself and gain continuing support from its corporate partners?
I’ll go back to the idea of connection. Nonprofits have to live their mission and communicate it in a way that makes sense for the corporations they want to work with in some way. They need to show what they do and how they do it in clear terms.

Q: Have you identified any solutions to help ensure greater success?
This goes back to one of my earlier points. Nonprofits are learning that the way to sustain themselves through tough economies is to keep those donors who will continue to give, and even give more, during these times. Corporate partnership may bring sponsorship to the nonprofit that leads to personal relationships with people who really personally believe in the nonprofit. That is where, by far, the largest financial support comes from—the individual donors who experience the charity and see what it does and how well it does it.

Very few charities have the dedicated staff and resources needed to reach out successfully. If they do, those resources may not be strategically placed to guarantee this happens.

Q: Since this publication speaks to practitioners who build and execute community relations programs, are there any myths or stereotypes about nonprofits you’d like to dispel?
Well, many people still believe that a nonprofit isn’t big business. This comes from the fact that we aren’t seen as having a bottom line shareholder and that whatever we bring in for income we give away. What we do is warm and fuzzy, so it is hard to put a price tag on warm and fuzzy.

Q: So what do you see as the real value that nonprofits provide?
We provide services and programs that meet specific needs. A challenge in doing this is that some health-related charities, for example, do much of their work—make their contribution—through education. They share a prevention and early detection message. While the dollars go to research, they also go to creating messages that tell people how to watch out for certain symptoms and to be aware of risk factors. These are important things to say, but do they motivate people to donate or to give their time?

Q: How do you approach the communication function in a nonprofit?
Many of the largest and most successful nonprofits are national organizations that operate regional and local chapters that actually deliver the programs. The strategy, planning and research takes place at the headquarters. This is a challenge for the executive director to explain, as donors are often interested in knowing what happens locally. They want to know where their dollars go and how much of their donation stays in their state.

Q: What role does your communication or public affairs/advocacy director play?
Well, they may focus on showing how it happens, where the money is invested and at what levels. They may create an annual plan that explains how the community or the state—whatever the nonprofits’ area of service may be—is benefiting. They may build a PSA or work with a television station to get an anchor to emcee an event. They may write press releases or punch up a donation letter for a corporate outreach effort.

Q: Testimonials and case studies are particularly moving. Are they a large part of your communication plan?
Yes and no. They are very touching and pull the heartstrings; they help people to understand what we do and what it means. The hard part is knowing when to use such information to make a point. Nonprofits are learning to speak the way corporations do and we need to do this well. We need to show how and where we help, and sometimes a statistic is more important than a patient’s experience. It’s a tough call.

Q: What are the technology trends you are experiencing?
Online fundraising is a big area that will continue to develop, and it offers many opportunities. A key question is whether the messages will get through and if people will take action. E-newsletters also are a big trend. They save a great deal of money and provide a very efficient way to reach a donor’s desk. I think this is a particularly useful way to reach corporate partners.

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