New Places, New Friends, New Organizations

I’m pleased to say that I’ve moved myself and my consulting practice to Taos, New Mexico. I’ll still be working with people and organizations in Dallas, but I’m happy to be able to add my talents to those of folks who are working hard to improve the lot of one of the lowest income states in the country. It’ll be less about buildings and more about helping of children and adults who are struggling to find ways to remain in an area that has one of the strongest senses of place I’ve ever seen.

Stay tuned.

What Is a Sustainable Organization?

Back when I was teaching about sustainability in the context of green building programs, I used, as a definition of sustainability, “the most efficient use of resources over the lifetime of the building.” I called my consulting firm Sustainable Places, Sustainable Organizations because I believe the same principles apply to nonprofits as apply to any other system: that resources, which include time and people as well as money, must be wisely used, not just for the short term, but also for the long-term well being of the organization.

What makes a nonprofit organization sustainable? Here are a few areas of focus:

Comprehensive relationship management. This requires a single, unified database, that enables staff and volunteers to understand the complete relationship with individuals and organizations: recent and past donations, time given to volunteer projects, involvement with other organizations, participation in events. You should understand all of the ways people are involved and be in touch with them frequently, not just to ask for money, but to ask for advice and let them know what’s happening and how their participation is helping your organization grow. It’s so much easier to build on existing supporters than try to find new ones. I’ve written about CRM programs in the past; Salesforce is one. It’s free. Do make sure that, after taking the time to acquire the data, you use it.

Continual leadership development. Do you know who’ll be leading your organization for the next five years? Do you have a plan in the event the president-elect has to withdraw at the last minute? It’s not just about the next board chair, but about developing leadership strength and depth at all levels: board, committees, one-time volunteers. Don’t assume that everyone has the knowledge and skills to run the board or manage the event or serve on the finance committee just because they’ve offered to. Learning new skills is an important benefit of volunteering and equally important to retention. A leadership pipeline is critical to smooth operations.

The same is true for staff. Make sure you’re budgeting for professional development. In your annual review, find out if there are skills the ED would like an opportunity to develop. Are there clear job descriptions for each position? Should the ED decide to depart, is there a succession plan?

Annual review of systems. Are your systems efficient and up to date or is your staff spending unnecessary time trying to make outdated computer systems work? Does your phone system enable messages to be searched and archived? Do you have systems in place to update software? Does your accounting system need streamlining? Are there other areas that can be automated without “loss of human contact,” to enable your staff and volunteers to spend more time doing the things that only humans can do?

Review your space
. We’ve all visited nonprofit offices that are repositories of incredible amounts of “stuff”: table centerpieces from last year’s luncheon, flip charts from the last strategic planning session five years ago, leftover plates and napkins from dozens of board meetings, boxes of files no one’s looked at for years. Everyone is happier and more productive working in an organized environment and a lot of clutter makes it hard to find needed information. If your office is suffering from accretions from the last few decades, organize an ad hoc committee to spend several afternoons or evenings organizing. The volunteers will learn things they never knew and you may find that missing cd of photos you’ve been looking for for six months.

Document retention. Having important, regularly accessed documents in a central location will save huge amounts of time. Most contact relationship management programs enable digital document storage, including emails and voice mail messages, which can provide an alternative to retaining paper documents in the office. A document retention policy that is integrated into daily operations, with documentation of where documents are stored, will not only save time but also ensure items are available when leadership changes.

Make it easier. Can prospective volunteers find information about volunteer jobs and sign up online? Is the volunteer chair notified automatically and does the volunteer’s information automatically get added to the database? Can a donation be made with one click? Can your donors make donations in monthly or quarterly installments?

In my experience, time is the resource most frequently squandered by nonprofit organizations. But donors and volunteers have little patience for misuse of that resource particularly. Remember that there’s a lot of competition for support of all kinds. By making all of your activities easier and more streamlined, you’ll be making the best use of your donors’ and your volunteers’ time–and they will love you for it.

Using time, money and people effectively will ensure that your organization will better weather the vagaries of the economy and survive for the long term, and that is what sustainability is all about.



Nonprofits and Data Management and Fundraising

Nonprofit data managementI do a fair of work with small nonprofits and it’s amazing to me how many of them continue to use–almost INSIST on using–multiple silos for their donor/volunteer/event records, particularly when there are many free or low-cost options for integrating it all. It’s almost as if they feel as though they’re being good stewards of their resources by spending immense amount of staff or volunteer time entering and managing data. They’re not.

Here’s a great blog post from Guidestar that was published this morning, to which I fully subscribe. It has always been true, and is becoming more and more important, that nonprofits really know their stakeholders and their relationships. My feeling is, you can’t cultivate if you don’t integrate. So take the time–or have an ad hoc committee take the time–to look at your systems and your data and bring them into the 21st century.

Does Your Board Know What It Needs to Know?

One of the most important jobs of organizational leadership is to ensure that board members have the right amount of information to ensure that they can–and will–carry out their fiduciary responsibilities and make the best contribution they can. Summertime, when many organizations begin a new fiscal year but perhaps scale back their activities, is the perfect time to make that happen.

Although in general I support providing documents digitally wherever possible, I’m a big fan of the comprehensive board notebook. This gives trustees a place to organize their information, adding documents as needed, taking notes at meetings, and using as a reference during and between meetings. The notebook should be issued immediately after the individual is elected so that they will have time to review and bring their questions to the board orientation. Going through the notebook page-by-page at the orientation is a real buzzkill at a time you want to generate excitement for their service.

The orientation is the point at which the organization has the best opportunity to tell new board members exactly what the group needs from them–and also to learn what the newbie wants out of their board tenure. Interactivity and getting to know one another is key! Critically, each individual must come away with a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, particularly the legal requirements of board membership.

Here’s some further reading on effective orientations. Do it–a little time invested now will make a huge difference in the long run.

Donor Databases–What I’ve Learned, Part 2

My introduction to Salesforce came about five years ago, while I was working as a consultant for a small (by which I mean no staff) nonprofit. The Salesforce instance had been set up by a volunteer, Teri Walker, who is now a technology consultant for nonprofits and small businesses. It was clear from the beginning that even though the learning curve is steep, Salesforce offers all sorts of flexibility to adapt to the operations of any nonprofit.

Since then, I’ve used it every time I’ve worked with a nonprofit and I learn a lot–always on the fly–every time. Things I’ve learned:
–get a good consultant, experienced with nonprofits, to help with implementation–it will save a LOT of time
–join a nonprofit user group–there’s one in many communities, supported by the Salesforce Foundation
–take advantage of some of the many video tutorials offered by Salesforce–it’s a great way to learn
–if you can possibly swing it, go to the annual convention Dreamforce–they say it’s invaluable in learning about Salesforce and related resources

Dallas Nonprofit User Group

I’ve just recently learned about Apsona, another FREE add-on app that makes using the Salesforce nonprofit starter pack much easier and more versatile to use. Wish I had known about it all along–I learned about it at the Dallas Salesforce nonprofit user group, which meets monthly.

As nonprofit administrators, it’s incumbent on all of us to be good stewards of our organizations’ resources, including keeping up with advances in technology. One other great thing about Salesforce–they keep up with advances, almost automatically, so you don’t have to.


Donor Databases–What I’ve Learned, Part 1

I’ve worked with many, many nonprofits over the years, as a volunteer and as a staff member. Every single one of those organizations–without exception–was looking for the best way to keep track of their donors, volunteers, vendors, prospects, and documents.

At the risk of making this post sound as though I’m advertising, I want to talk about the magic that is Salesforce. It may not be the answer for a fully-staffed development office, but for my world, which is that of the small nonprofit always looking to maximize resources, it’s, literally, a gift.

The Salesforce Foundation‘s philanthropic model famously gives away to nonprofits1% of its product, 1% of its staff time, and 1% of its equity. Ten free licenses and all kinds of support are available FREE to any qualified nonprofit. Because their business model is primarily oriented toward for-profits, Salesforce doesn’t have to rely on nonprofits to make its money, as do companies like Blackbaud, DonorPerfect, and DonorSnap, all of whom charge monthly access fees. That can add up.

Salesforce is cloud-based, which means all the software as well as the data is virtually based (and backed up). No worries about losing the data.

Used in concert with add-on applications that are integrated seamlessly into Salesforce, the enterprising nonprofit can track donations and volunteer hours, create a central repository for digital files of all kinds, manage events, send mass emails, accept credit card payments–manage virtually all of its operations–absolutely for free, once the system is implemented. What could be better?

More about my thoughts and experiences in Part 2.

Other Ways Foundations Can Help

Traditionally, foundations have played the role of funders to nonprofits almost exclusively. Lately, in the spirit of “give a man a fish…,” a number of forward-thinking foundations have looked at other ways to support individuals and community-based groups.for the longer term.

One group I have a lot of respect for is the Rhode Island Foundation. Rhode Island is a small place with perhaps a disproportionate number of artists (RISD is located in Providence) that is headquarters of the Alliance of Artists Communities, a group I became familiar with while I was working with La Reunion TX. The two groups are collaborating this year to present the annual Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowships, which are grants of $25,000 awarded to individual Rhode Island artists. The Foundation provides the funding and the AAC folks, who know the artists, administer the program. That’s refreshing: many foundations, in part because of tax laws, will not support individual artists. This collaboration supports both artists and a significant arts group.

The Foundation’s other individual-oriented program is a fellowship for mid-career nonprofit executives designed to give EDs the chance to take “productive, short-term sabbaticals from their organizations.” What a great idea, and in many ways of greater value to a nonprofit than a simple program grant. A gift that keeps on giving.

Good ideas for foundations across the country.

Membership Development–Changing Rapidly

National Trust Membership Development monographIt was rewarding to learn recently that the National Trust’s template for organizational assessment includes in its references a guide to membership development I wrote for them many years ago.

As flattering as that might be, I’m not so sure it’s still relevant. The concept–and perceived value–of membership is changing rapidly, with young people not feeling as compelled to be part of a club as they once were.

There is a real movement toward experiential participation, through events and one-shot volunteer opportunities, especially those that don’t require membership as a prerequisite to participation.

This is a topic I hope to develop in a future post; it is of critical import for nonprofits that have traditionally relied on membership dues for a significant part of their revenues.

Eight Resolutions for Fundraisers

Guidestar, a group that promotes best practices among nonprofit organizations, always has good information for nonprofit staff and board members. This new article, Eight Resolutions for Fundraisers, has great ideas. The first one may be the best: Sit down with each of your board members, figure out what they do best and what they want to do, and always make one-on-one requests rather than lobbing them “like water balloons across the board room.”

Ineffective executives make blanket requests (or demands!) at board meetings or, worse, by email, and then wonder why the board doesn’t respond.

Effective nonprofit executives are always looking for better ways to engage their constituency, better ways to communicate, and better ways to serve. It’s the responsibility of leadership.