Article In Brief:
- The Problem: New ideas for expanding impact tempt nonprofits to expand their target population, chase new grants or donors, and/or enlarge mission without realizing organization growth.
- Why it Happens: Nonprofit founders and leaders seek new ways to make a bigger impact without considering all the impacts on the organization.
- The Solution: Nonprofits can avoid temptations by conducting market research, considering additional costs that will accrue if the idea is implemented, and seeking partnerships instead of creating new programs.
Every organization changes. Constantly looking for the next opportunity to connect, collaborate, and expand can be exhilarating.
It might be tempting to grab that opportunity, go for that grant, or add that new program. But be careful! Great ideas aren’t always great for your organization. Sometimes, great ideas go wrong.
Take for example a retail center with an empty storefront that wants to activate the space with art. A nearby nonprofit art gallery, whose mission is the appreciation, creation, and preservation of traditional visual art, sees this space as a great opportunity and proposes to use it to create an artists’ cooperative store. The rent is free, so the only costs are utilities and insurance. The store sells glass, ceramics, jewelry, and a few small moderately priced paintings and prints.
Although artists love the store, it never manages to increase gallery attendance, gallery sales, or class enrollment. Instead, it diverts workers from their main duties at the gallery to work at the store.
So, what went wrong? Why didn’t this opportunity result in organizational growth?
For starters, gallery leaders hadn’t connected the store to their organization’s mission; they had forgotten that traditional visual art—like paintings—don’t attract casual shoppers. In contrast, the glass, ceramics, and jewelry did attract shoppers but didn’t really support the gallery’s mission. Because the store’s customers did not overlap with the gallery’s target audience, the gallery technically expanded its programs but ultimately failed to advance its mission.
Instead of getting side-tracked like this gallery, the strongest nonprofits expand thoughtfully, adding programs and serving target populations that are logical extensions of their missions. They don’t pursue growth for growth’s sake but rather carefully seek connections, collaborative opportunities, and partnerships. The strongest nonprofits ignore the adrenaline rush of those new opportunities that tempt leaders to make decisions that burden budgets, overextend staff time, and even blur the focus of the mission.
How can organizations avoid these pitfalls?
Admittedly, nonprofits are usually led by idealists who want to help others and change the world. So how can these idealists stay grounded and remember not to bite off more than they can chew? Here are ways to identify—and ultimately resist—several common temptations.
Temptation #1: Reaching too far beyond the target population
This might manifest with the simple question, “Wouldn’t it be great to reach all those new people?”
The gallery described above made this mistake. Although the art store paid for itself, it was a drain on staff time. The gallery was not interested in expanding its focus to include glass, ceramics, and jewelry. The store did not really add value; it just distracted gallery workers.
Resistance: Do some market research. Is there significant overlap between your members/clients/audience and the group you are expanding to reach?
A great example of positive—and logical—expansion might look like a children’s theatre adding programs in public schools. Not only is this an extension of the mission, but it also gives the organization access to future audiences. Make sure the group you are trying to reach overlaps with your current intended audience.
Temptation #2: Chasing money
We’ve all heard, “But we can get a grant for it!” or “If we do this new program, Mr. Rich will give us a large donation! With this extra money, the program will be cost-neutral.”
It can be difficult to remain practical in the face of enthusiasts offering money, but many grants and most individual donors only recognize direct program costs. A donor might understand that their desired program means a new staff member or additional hours for a particular staff position but not realize that this program creates new responsibilities for the general manager, communications director, finance manager, and receptionist as well.
Similarly, physical space might be an issue, especially if an organization is tied to a specific place. And even if your staff and your venue are prepared to squeeze in one more program, is it ultimately worth it?
Resistance: When you’re thinking of expanding, remember to consider not only the direct costs but also the cost of staff time and rental space.
You might think about your staff time and program space in terms of percentages. Calculate what percent of each person’s time would go to the new program. Make the same calculation for your venue, if the new program calls for physical space. Make certain that the money offered will cover all costs. And if it doesn’t, the answer is it’s simply not worth it.
Temptation #3: Being all things to all people
This temptation is often a product of concerted good will: “Can we go sing at the assisted living facility?” or “Can we add a food drive this season?”
If an organization has a social justice mission, it can be tough to see where that mission ends.
Take, for example, a literacy nonprofit with an afterschool tutoring program. Should they expand by serving sandwiches to hungry kids? This might seem logical, since the students will likely have trouble learning if they are hungry.
However, there are myriad considerations that leaders may overlook in their zeal to help children. Can the organization use the school’s kitchen? Does the organization have a list of students’ food allergies and dietary restrictions? Will staff need to get a food handler’s license?
Resistance: Instead of creating a new program, seek partnerships.
For the above-mentioned afterschool tutoring program, it might be better to partner with another nonprofit whose mission is to fight food insecurity. Such an organization would be better prepared to handle food, learn about children’s food allergies/dietary restrictions, and even transport packaged food to the school.
Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, focus on what your organization is good at. Look for ways to expand your network of nonprofits instead of your nonprofit’s programs.
Speaking of partnerships, don’t overlook community professionals who might want to connect. Sometimes nonprofits get so focused on their own stakeholders they forget that other teachers, artists, and nonprofit leaders would make great partners. Broaden your network, and view others as potential allies, not as rivals.
You Can Say Maybe
When presented with a new opportunity, don’t be afraid to say no. If an opportunity sounds tempting but isn’t quite a perfect fit, try saying maybe. Perhaps you can mold the opportunity into something that works for your organization or, alternately, you might partner with a compatible organization. But remember, you need to do what works best to advance the mission statement of your organization. At the end of the day, the juice has to be worth the squeeze.
About the Author
Catherine Aselford has worked in the nonprofit field for twenty-two years. She has served as executive director, development manager, and education manager at several arts and education nonprofits in the Washington, D.C. area. She develops education and public programs, including the annual D.C. SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) Day, the N.E.A. Big Read program, and several Banned Book Week Read-Outs.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.