It’s a tough time for everybody, but especially for non-profit organizations. While they might not be as tyrannized by the bottom line as a business, even so, they do have to take in as much as they spend, and that’s not easy. How, then, to survive?
First, be realistic about your donors. Don’t insist that modest-to-moderate supporters really are big givers who are holding out on you out of meanness. Press them too hard, or worse, fire off a hostile e-mail when you receive from them less than you wanted, and you may annoy them to the point that they will give you nothing next year, and you will have lost a faithful friend of your effort.
Two, maintain a calm demeanor. A panicky edge-of-the-grave approach leaves the impression that you are indeed about to fold. Nobody wants to sink money into a ship that’s already beneath the waves. Moreover, a survey for one non-profit group in Dallas found that people don’t give to an organization simply because its leaders keep imploring. “We need money.” Potential donors must see some value in the effort, something valuable to them, and that could include important services to others.
Third, survival depends on radical control of spending. Are you sending out volumes of paper, in four-color? By courier? Reports that are redundant or unnecessary? Don’t do it. Recipients will only resent the expense, especially if you’re asking them to bear it.
Are you paying for office space that you could live without? Why not a virtual office, with everyone working at home, staying in touch by e-mail and phone and meeting at Starbucks, or in the conference room of a board member if it’s an important gathering?
I just met a man from San Francisco who ran a call center with 20,000 people working from home. Now he’s sold that company and plans to start another, with a sales force pushing wares on line, from home. A young Dallas lawyer does estate planning at his house, and rents occasional access to an office for consultations with clients. No overhead. More net income for him. If this can work in business, why not in the non-profit world? Also, your supporters would be impressed by your ingenuity and your ability to stay afloat with flair.
This would not work for every organization, of course. Some have heavy equipment or service facilities that are central to what they do. But for those whose only capital assets are desk-top computers, it could be a godsend.
Fourth, this advice from a former non-profit board chair who knows that world well: Stop hoping for larger gifts from a few donors, whose checks arrive but for smaller sums, and start emulating candidate Barack Obama who raised millions from lots and lots of people some of whom sent him as little as $10, then stayed in constant, appreciative touch with them by e-mail. And this from a seasoned, successful, top-level fund-raiser in this city: Raising money is all about relationship. Stay in touch with your current or potential contributors. Tell them you want to be among their top three causes when the lights go on again.
And they will. So make sure you’re still around when they do.