A 100 year old institution in our town announced this week that it is closing down.
Naturally, it’s a sad occasion. No decent person likes to see something that has been part of the fabric of a community’s life for so long come to an end. It wasn’t for lack of trying, either.
This was the second time in 6 months that I’ve looked on as a struggling community institution has closed its doors. I work with lots of small non-profits, people with good intentions who try hard. Struggling to keep head above water is a constant part of life for most, if not all, of these organizations. Watching them close is painful.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of insufficient funding that finally overwhelms. But I’m fairly certain that lack of funding is often symptomatic of other fatal misunderstandings of changes that have happened over the past 30 years. Changes in social norms. Changes in communication patterns. Economic shifts on a tectonic scale. Especially for older institutions, but even for relatively newer ones, the kinds of institutional evolution required to keep up can often be the overwhelming factor at the root of their failure to thrive.
“If you build it, they will come,” is a beautiful and romantic a notion but it is simply not enough. Bake sales, chicken dinners, bingo, and community raffles are attractive because they worked for years, and because even though they take a lot of work, they’re easy. But you can’t build a financial plan on them. Having a website and a Facebook page is all great, but I’m convinced most non-profits don’t have any idea what to do with their on-line real estate.
So, what’s a struggling little community non-profit to do?
For starters every board and staff member of your non-profit should read Sasha Dichter’s little manifesto on fundraising (links to a pdf). Don’t be put off by the word “manifesto.” Dichter understands free markets. And he understands, better than anyone else I know of, how non-profits can survive in them. Just read it. And then do what he says.
Second, if you’re thinking that having a website will save you, think again. Your online strategy has to go a lot deeper than posting a bio of your Executive Director and pictures your Aunt Bess took with her Instamatic at the last bake sale. A good online marketing adviser is critical. This person is not necessarily the same person who builds you a website. Just because your 15 year old nephew knows how to get a Facebook page up for you “for free” doesn’t make it the best deal. Yes, you should have a bio of your Exec. And if Aunt Bess takes really awesome pictures that capture the spirit of your mission, then yes, post the pictures. Be careful, though, because where and how you post is at least as critical as what you post.
Third, unless you’re a non-profit foundation (and even then), remember that money is not your mission, but it is critical to the success of your mission. I’ve seen this cut both ways. There’s the community group that has started pouring so much effort and attention into the bake sales that they’ve forgotten (or don’t have any energy left) to do anything else. And there’s the little advocacy group that is so in love with its mission they forget that not everyone else is.
Finally, a lot of organizations have good intentions, but are also good at living in denial about where their mission fits into their community context. For example, the church group wants to serve its community and has an idea that a community basketball rec program would be just the right thing. They send out the faithful knocking on doors around the neighborhood to see if there’s any interest. Almost everyone in the neighborhood tells the scouting teams they need jobs and daycare, but a couple responses come back that basketball would be “nice.” So they do a basketball rec program and wonder why nobody comes. If you’ve got actionable data, you’ve got to act on it, even when – especially when – it contradicts your expectations.
These are a few things I’ve seen. Maybe you’ve seen others, or have other constructive ideas. I’d like to hear them. What would you say to the non-profit that has something great to contribute to the world, but is on the verge of closing its doors?