Monday, January 5, 2015

Are you sure your nonprofit needs money?

No matter the mission, the most often repeated line in most of my email is:

"If we just had more money we could (Fill in the blank)."

There is no doubt that money greases the wheels of philanthropy, but if you don't understand the  challenges of delivering your services, all the money in the world won't help.

Take the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. No shortage of money there. Yet a reprint of a Seattle Times article, posted January 3, 2015 in the Philanthropy News Digest, tells us that even the commitment of a quarter of a billion dollars doesn't guarantee success.

One interesting quote from the article mentions that the Foundation underestimated the difficulty of achieving their desired results due to the lack of even the most basic infrastructure in the areas they were trying to serve, indicating that someone was a little short in planning skills.

On a much smaller scale, a charity working with domestic violence victims was involved in a program to provide computer training, with the desired end result being that the women wouldn't need to depend on their abusers for income.

While they had some success, their program was only graduating about 12% of its participants, and was having trouble attracting funding after the initial $25,000 grant they received. The results just weren't there to impress new funding sources with the program's effectiveness.

When they approached me to find them at least $100K in funding for more computers and class space, I had to tell them that their results just didn't justify asking for that kind of money. To their everlasting credit, instead of firing me on the spot, they asked "why?"

The problem was that they had not anticipated that many of these women had less than a tenth grade education, and for some of them, even that education was over 20 years old.

While teaching them to use a keyboard was pretty easy (most of them had cell phones and knew how to text) some of them couldn't read well enough to understand the online help or even how to find it. All the classes did for them was to reinforce the idea that they were losers, and they simply quit coming to class.

It was like teaching someone how to use a hammer to drive a nail, without any knowledge of what driving that nail actually did to build a house.

It's easy to jump from "let's form a nonprofit" to expecting that your program will immediately get to its desired end result.

Money doesn't necessarily fix the ills of the world. It takes a lot of time and hard work, and sometimes more than a few false starts before you begin to achieve results that can attract more funding.

In the case of the nonprofit illustrated above, they had to back up, add a step, and focus on offering simple basic tutoring to improve math, reading and comprehension skills, an approach that did net them about another $20K in funding from their original grantor almost immediately.

As frustrating as it was, in the end the ladies they wanted so desperately to help got a lot more out of that approach, and many (81%) went on to successfully complete the computer skills classes and get jobs.

This all goes back to understanding the process of being a nonprofit. It's easy to see a problem, but a lot harder to plan a fully designed and effective program that  produces results worthy of continued funding.

The good thing about that problem is that you don't need much money to solve it. You do need a solid organizational plan, a willingness to learn to recognize and overcome obstacles and the patience to achieve it in baby steps instead of giant leaps.

If you do your homework, you can actually outperform even the Gates Foundation, and that's surely something you can be proud to report.

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