Survival Strategies for Nonprofits

I’ve seen two blogs in the last two weeks regarding survival strategies for nonprofit organizations (NPOs), non-governmental organizations, (NGOs), community based organizations (CBOs), charities, etc., per the current dire economic climate.

I was unimpressed with both of them. They were all big picture ideas that lacked specifics (Refine your mission! or Merge with another organization!). Mission-based organizations are looking for ideas to do next week, to save or make money now.

These blogs also talked about volunteers only in terms of saving money – get volunteers to do those things that, in better economic times, you would pay someone to do.

So I came up with my own ideas, based on what I’ve experienced or observed at other organizations, to help a mission-based organization survive these tough economic times:

  • Make sure your web site and all of your social media activities emphasize what your organization is accomplishing, in detail, rather than your desperate need for funds. If someone looks at your web site, it should exude impact and results, not desperation. People and organizations are cutting back on donations, but they are NOT eliminating giving altogether; they want to give where they know their money will make a real difference. If your web site & social media activities aren’t emphasizing results and opportunities, and isn’t showing exactly what donations pay for, you are regularly missing out on donations.
  • Are you charging for activities and services as you should? For instance:
    • Organizing an activity for a group of volunteers from the local branch of a national bank requires a huge amount of time and resources on your part, often to create an activity that your own employees could do more efficiently or an activity that’s actually not critical to the organization – the activity is to give the group a feel-good experience, but it’s at your expense. Are you charging the corporation a fee, even a small amount, to cover some or all of these costs? Be ready to show a detailed lists of what the costs are for your organization to create this group volunteering activity.
    • Corporations frequently ask nonprofits to collaborate on a project, to advise the company on an activity, such as the development of new software or the launching of an event. For anything that is going to require staff to spend more than an hour on a corporation’s project, ask the corporation to cover the staff person’s time. Consider this: if you wanted the company to do a project for your organization, they would most probably charge you for that service – so why not ask them for the same consideration?
    • What about training for volunteers – what are the exact costs of this, and should you be asking volunteers to pay for some of these costs, even a small amount? Would a corporation be willing to give you a donation in return for saying that they “sponsor” all volunteer training?
  • Does your organization have a service or activity it could sell, for a fee? For instance,
    • If you are a women’s shelter that involves volunteers as counselors to victims of domestic violence, could you market the training you provide to these volunteers to local businesses, corporations and large government offices, as professional development for their employees? Those organizations could pay to have your trainer come onsite to their companies and train their staff regarding recognizing domestic violence, how to make referrals if they see an employee in need, etc.
    • If you are an animal shelter, would area dog trainers be willing to come onsite for a seminar on pet safety or pet training, providing their one-day training for free, with the seminar fee going to your shelter, and the trainers being allowed to pass out advertising about their training to attendees?
    • Do you charge even a nominal fee to those that want to use your company lunch room or common room bulletin board to advertise local services? (restaurants, pet boarding, printing, apartment finders, etc.).
    • Do you have a large space you could rent to other organizations and companies for events, meetings or storage?
  • Ask employees and volunteers for ways to cut expenses in the coming weeks and the coming months. Have them look at their individual program and department budgets and come back to you with ideas of ways to eliminate expenses. Let them submit ideas on-the-record and anonymously. Open ideas up to discussion (on a private online discussion group, for instance, or over lunch – and, of course, staff should provide their own lunches). You might be surprised at just how much money could be saved per the ideas of your own employees and volunteers.
  • Give each department or program a required target for expense reduction. 10%? 20%?
  • Do the written job descriptions for every employee and high-responsibility, long-term volunteer role at your organization reflect reality? Have every employee and high-responsibility, long-term volunteer review his or her job description and edit it to reflect what they are actually doing, to note what they can’t do but feel is still essential, and to note what they aren’t doing, and don’t feel they should be doing, but that’s still listed in the description. Are some staff duplicating each others’ efforts? Should some roles be combined (and, therefore, some positions eliminated or cut back)?
  • Could your organization afford unpaid furloughs for employees? Many employees would welcome unpaid days off to lengthen their holiday time off or their paid vacations. Ask employees for their feedback about the consequences to your clients and programs if they took an unpaid week off — or two weeks off — in summer, for instance.
  • Look at your printing costs. How much of what you are producing in print form could be offered online, with anyone who wants such printing it themselves (and paying for that printing themselves, either from home, from their work, from a public library or from a copy center?)? How much of what you print is actually being read – and should you reduce the size of your printed publications? Is your printed annual report really necessary this year? Do any of your volunteers, including board members, or family members of your employees work at large companies or institutions that might be willing to donate their onsite printing equipment to produce your program brochure? Do you charge the public or donors for any printed report that is more than 10 pages?
  • Be specific on your web site about your organization’s costs. How much do you spend each month on electricity, for instance? Post the cost to your web site and note that you are looking for an Electric Angel – someone willing to sponsor your electricity bill for next month, which will allow you to do whatever it is you do to add value to your community or the planet. Before doing so, make sure your utility use is efficient – is the office thermostat set to a energy-efficient setting?
  • Put a temporary moratorium on furniture purchases of any kind. Post your furniture needs to your own web site and to a freecycle online group for your area. Use your social media to discuss such as well.
  • It may be in the best interest of your organization to scale back, postpone, or even eliminate a service, program or activity. A nonprofit theater may need to scale back its season by one show. Another organization may have to eliminate or scale back an annual onsite event. This may be your opportunity to become even more focused on your mission. Look at how much every program or activity costs, in detail, and think about way to reduce those costs, or evaluate the consequences of scaling back, postponing or eliminating that program or activity in relation to your organization’s mission.
  • If you are thinking of involving more volunteers, don’t think of it as a temporary solution; think of it as a permanent re-alignment of your organization. If you decide that you are going to reserve certain roles for volunteers – for instance, all pro bono consultancies that will support staff, all front desk/phone staff, all bloggers, all conference support staff, etc., make it a permanent change that will last even when the economy gets better. Volunteers aren’t free. In fact, this realignment regarding volunteer involvement will cost money – perhaps more money than you are probably spending now to support and involve volunteers (they will need to be screened, trained more than once, supervised and supported!), but perhaps the savings from elsewhere can pay for this.
  • Be explicit to board members and the press about any cut that is going to affect the scope or even the quality of your organization’s service. It may sound great to an outsider for your organization to eliminate paid positions, while you know that the consequences to clients, the community or the environment will be devastating – think about how you will make those potential consequences crystal clear and very public. That can affect the thinking of an annual large donor that’s considering scaling back on their donations to your organization soon.
  • Get the press, government leaders and corporate leaders onto your location and viewing your work. I don’t mean fundraising events – I mean you need to invite them all to observe program activities, to attend a volunteer training, or to view for themselves your organization in action. The press wants something visually-appealing: people moving or laughing, or people being very expressive. Government leaders and corporations want to see something that is representative of your organization’s impact. Make these invitations in a friendly, no-pressure way, and do NOT ask for donations in the invite nor during the site visit. All you are doing is building connections and interest, so that when the time does come to ask for a donation, you have a relationship with the potential funder, and the organization understands your organization’s work.

You should have detailed information about your current expenses and a tracking system that allows you to see – and share – exactly how much money you are saving each month and each quarter over the coming year. In sharing that information, tout not only how lean and efficient your organization is; also note what the consequences are of these cuts to clients and the community. When announcing cuts, you don’t want to give the impression that your organization had been wasteful or frivolous in its spending previously – and with these cuts, now it’s not. You also don’t want to send the message that your organization can cut and save its way out of its financial challenges.

If you do end up cutting back or eliminating a program – and cutting employee positions – be as generous as possible with departing staff. You are saving your organization from financial hardship but putting employees into financial hardship:

  • Contact a temp agency or any employment agencies in your city and ask to arrange immediate onsite interviews for staff you are laying off, so that when you lay off an employee, you can hand that person a card and say, “This person is waiting for your call after our meeting to set up an informational interview, review your résumé and talk about employment openings and temp opportunities.” If there are no temp agencies in your geographic area, talk to your board members and see if they work at companies that have highly-skilled HR people, and if the company would be willing to donate this person’s time to do at least two job-coaching sessions with departing staff, regarding preparing résumés and LinkedIn profiles, the best online job boards to use and using social media for job searches.
  • Write each person a letter of recommendation and write a recommendation on his or her LinkedIn profile.
  • Give laid off employees at least three weeks salary and payment for all unused vacation (and remember that they will be out-of-work for MUCH longer than that, in all likelihood).

What are your ideas for saving money ASAP for nonprofits, NGOs and charities, so that they can survive the ongoing financial crisis? Be specific.

2 thoughts on “Survival Strategies for Nonprofits

  1. Rosemary Rodd

    A question, rather than an idea: do you know if anyone has ever tried asking people to sponsor volunteers? I’m not thinking of sponsorship to pay for their overheads, but as an alternative to sponsored marathons etc. It seems to me that there might be an appetite for sponsoring something that’s useful in itself.

  2. Anonymous

    Sounds good to me, Rosemary! You might ask this question on CYBERVPM to see if, indeed, this is something that’s been done successfully.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *