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Asking the Right Questions

By Susan Carey Dempsey on June 13, 2007No Comment

Asking the Right Questions
By Susan Carey Dempsey, 6/13/2007

So often, nonprofit executives find their precious time allotted for program administration, fundraising activities, cultivating donors and board members, the list goes on. When they reach out to us, as consultants, they often acknowledge that they know their organization needs help, but they don’t know where to begin to make changes.

Like most exercises in self-improvement, the process requires a candid, thorough assessment of your organization’s strength and weaknesses. If you had the time, you  would begin by seeking the answers to the following questions:

How do your nonprofit’s funding streams compare to those of your peers and competitors? Are they attracting comparable levels of donations, and are their donors potential supporters of yours? A review of public documents, including annual reports, 990’s, and information sources such as Foundation Search may yield valuable insights as to where you stand relative to similar organizations, as well as to overall trends in the sector.

Looking within, conduct an audit of your development functions. How well are they performing? Examine the cost/benefit ratio of each element. Are your revenue streams adequately diversified?

Look at the development staff. Do you have a full complement to handle the breadth and depth, ideally, of your fundraising programs? Are the personnel capable of performing at the level you need? Is there an appropriate budget for development?

How effective is your website? Are you fully utilizing interactive media to engage, cultivate and retain your constituency? Are online and printed communications frequent and effective enough?

How about the organization’s leadership? Is fundraising given a priority by executives, and does the board step up to its role?

Speaking of the board, how well does it observe accepted governance practices?

How well are board meetings attended, and is a majority of the board engaged, or does the bulk of the responsibility land on the same old, same old, hardy few? How diverse is your board? You should examine how well various constituencies are represented and be thinking also of skill sets. What could new board members add that you currently need? Review your board recruitment process: how are candidates identified, recruited, and oriented?

Often, the point where we’re asked to help an organization conduct a thorough assessment is when a nonprofit believes it’s ready to launch a capital campaign. Then, we recommend a carefully designed feasibility study, which should answer the following questions.
If your organization feels it has a vision for its future growth which can be articulated in a case for support, is that case compelling? By speaking candidly with those closest to the organization, can we answer these questions: among the pool of prospective donors, what is the magnitude of potential charitable support for this vision?

Do you have volunteer leaders who will help to identify, cultivate, and solicit prospective supporters? Have you identified potential obstacles: is there anything that would stand in the way of a successful effort?

Finally, do you have a comprehensive plan, which has incorporated an appropriate goal, identified leadership, sufficient structure, and a clearly defined blueprint for execution?

It can be, in a word, scary to confront these questions and ponder their implications. However, it may be riskier not to, simply to proceed without facing the challenges they may well reveal. On the other hand, the opportunities they present should result in your organization being

  • Better governed and managed
  • Better funded
  • More competitive
  • More effective

…and ultimately, your stakeholders will be better served.

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