This is the first installment of a series of articles on how non-profits can work better with businesses.
I have been flipping back and forth between the two sides of the coin for years: a few years with a non-profit and then a decade with a for-profit, then back to non-profit and so on. My most recent non-profit stint ended a little over a year ago and since I’m firmly back in “filthy lucre” land, I feel safe in sharing a few hard-won observations with any non-profit executive who is willing to listen.
It seems like every non-profit in the world believes that if they just had enough money, all of their troubles would be over. More money would bring them more staff, more volunteers, a better building, more…well, you get the point. But the truth of the matter, is it doesn’t take just money to succeed and no matter how much money you throw at things, it won’t fix a poorly run board, an agency without a clear-cut mission or staff that is not invested.
More importantly, the need for financial support does not excuse the bad behaviors that many non-profits engage in–undercutting their competitors, bad-mouthing other agencies and creating programs just to chase grants. While I’m fine with competition, I think collaboration is ultimately a much more powerful tool and, at its foundation, collaboration assumes that there is enough of everything to go around–good ideas, resources and, yes, money.
Think about a world where you don’t have to fight for every dime to keep your doors open, where the things you need appear at the right time and the people you need are available to help you. Won’t that be less stressful and more pleasant? Bear with me and I’ll show you how to do it.
Let’s pretend that we are running a youth after-school program in your town. We have 200 kids a day coming and we need to have activities for them and a place to do those activities. At this point, a lot of non-profits would whip out calculators and start figuring out the cost to rent a space, the cost to hire childcare providers, the cost to purchase games, etc. Then they would head off to write a grant or beg a big company for money. They will tell you it’s cost-effective to spend lots of time on one or two “hot” funding prospects.
Perhaps, but here’s what I suggest we do. Start by spending a little time clearly stating our needs (let’s call them CSNs). The only rule of CSNs, is that it’s not about the money. With that in mind, here are a few of our after-school program CSNs:
- We need a building with 4 restrooms, a working kitchen and 2,000 square feet of open space inside and an outside fenced in play area that is at least 1,000 square feet.
- We need 10-12 people who are 18+ years old to work with the kids Monday-Friday from 2:30 pm -6:30 pm.
- We need sturdy equipment to play with or on, such as basketball goals, basketballs, swing sets, tables and chairs, etc.
- Other items we might include in our CSNs are food for snacks, arts & crafts materials, school related supplies and books, and on and on.
Once you get your CSNs listed, rank order them with the most pressing need at the top. Also consider what kinds of groups or businesses might be able to help you with each of the CSNs. For example, a commercial realtor is going to know a lot about various buildings, a builder might be able to build that type of building and an Insurance Agent or CPA might know a building owner who needs a tax write off. All of these are great potential resources.
“But I don’t know people like that,” you cry. No worries, our next article in this series will address how and where to find people who can help you with your CSNs.
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