I am an idealist. If there were a card-issuing authority for idealists, I’d carry all the cards. I see the world as it ‘should-could’ be and spend my energy and time working to close the gap between how the world is and what I see as possible. So when I found myself talking with the founder of an organization that has been deliberately and successfully making sustainable changes for more than twenty-five years, I knew I was speaking with a kindred spirit.
Over the years of the organization’s history, the two founders had been very careful to direct the Trust’s growth. Together, they had been very deliberate in providing service within a defined community and focused on monitoring their results. They were careful to not over-extend their volunteers and worked within the limits of their resources. As the programs developed, the Trust had become a leader in its field, and the founders experts in their service area. Other communities in search of similar programs with terrific results sought them out for their wisdom and guidance, which they gladly shared. As a result of the community requests, the co-founders were documenting their processes and building a model so that their work could be adapted and reproduced in other communities.
When the founders were considering the future of the Trust, they decided the next step was to insure the organization’s stability and provide for its continued existence.
The two founders have been successfully fundraising since the very beginning by writing grants. They’ve built relationships with several international funding organizations and now it was time to begin the process of positioning the organization to flourish with the next generation of leadership. After all, the founder knew she wasn’t going to live forever and she wanted to ensure that her organization would be able to sustain itself without her constant attention to raising money. The co-founders decided that what they wanted to do to prepare the organization to pass to the next generation was to build an endowment. They envisioned an endowment of a certain size generating enough money so that the Trust would not need to fundraise. The staff and leadership would be able to spend their time and energy doing the work – the work they love and that is so important to their community.
No more anxiety. No more pleas for support. No more nonprofit fundraising!!
This might sound strange coming from someone with a long and distinguished career in nonprofit fundraising, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m an idealist. What a glorious vision! To find that elusive balance where there is enough in reserve to generate what is needed. Just think about all the extra time that could be spent doing the work and not worrying about resources! No more uncertainty about where the funds were going to come from and whether there would be enough. The vision made my heart sing!
As we spoke I remembered the thrill of discovery I felt when I ran an idea by an engineer friend. I could see the possibilities in my mind so clearly and I knew the Trust’s founder was having the same experience. I had an ideal system that generated energy and then used that energy to power itself and multiply the energy generation. It was a “re-investment” system.
My engineer friend was very kind when he gently let me know that all systems were ‘inefficient’. He pointed out that while energy was constant, during its transformation from one form to another, some “escape”. When we eat, we convert food to energy that powers our bodies and some of that food energy “escapes” as heat. When wood burns, it is converted by fire; some energy is heat, some is light, some remains latent as ash. Each time energy was transformed from one state to another, there were some that ended up in another form; escaping from my ideal closed system. I grudgingly acknowledged this to be the case, but still held in my idealist heart the hope for the efficient system.
The same principle applies to nonprofit economics.
A nonprofit is a system where the inputs (resources) transform into advancement toward the mission. But these systems aren’t closed. They exist in communities, countries, circumstances that are constantly shifting and changing, and some of the energy “escape” the system; perhaps when a staff member inspires someone else to start a project in their own community.
We talked for a while about what was in store for the Trust in the future. How would the organization adjust as demand for its services grew. What kind of impact would inflation and economic environmental changes have? As the model was developed and the organization found new results, how would it expand its offerings? Grow its programs? Would the organization continue as it is today? Would it be able to remain static or would it need to adjust to the changes in the community and the environment?
Fundraising is an input!
Our causes obey the laws of physics. We know there is a relationship between what we put in (resources), the transformation it goes through and the resulting impact. Governments have their own special revenue streams (inputs) that must be managed in the form of taxes and bond issues, without which governments would not be able to perform their work. For-profits can not function without earned revenues. Nonprofits have a revenue source, an input, that is not available in other kinds of institutions; nonprofits generate contributed revenue. Fundraising is an input!
Together, the founder and I looked back over the twenty-five year history of growth, adaptation, and change the Trust had successfully navigated. She decided that securing an endowment was one of the steps in providing for the continuity of the organization, but not the only or final step. Building the nonprofit’s fundraising capacity with staff and volunteers that would continue beyond her tenure would provide for stability and the ability to manage the Trust’s resource “inputs.”
I can see the beautiful, ideal vision of this perfect balance where we can spend our energy on advancing our missions.
We don’t have to worry about resources and don’t have to fundraise. I’m searching for the answer every day. And as soon as we find it, we will share it with the world!
But until that day we will keep doing the work, finding the solutions, moving toward our missions, and taking those next steps that bring us closer to that balance. We will become better fundraisers as a part of our resource “input” management. Each day we become better, more effective and efficient fundraisers, we have a greater impact. And after all, that impact is our vision of a better world.