Heather Comstock Connects

Helping nonprofits and other volunteer organizations develop strong relationships and a clear voice in the community.

Nonprofit Killer, Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Not a good nonprofit business model.

There are an incredible number of nonprofit organizations applying and receiving recognition of charity status every day. The vast majority of those don’t make it past their third birthday and fold. Even older, established nonprofits are not exempt from failure.  This is the fruit of a recent discussion I was having with a friend, frequent nonprofit volunteer, and entrepreneur about why it is so difficult for nonprofits to be successful. So what are some of the Nonprofit Killers?

Nonprofit Structure Itself

Does your structure empower you or does it serve as a fence to keep you in your place? Do you have the ability respond to challenges and opportunities or do you have to wait for your next board meeting in three months to approve the decision? I am not advocating ignoring your board, but if you need flexibility to act quickly, consider ways the board can still satisfy their fiduciary oversight but perhaps empower an executive team to handle the daily management.

Who is doing the work? Are one or two individuals doing everything while the rest of the board just nods in assent? Every board member needs to be actively engaged as a board member. They need to understand what is going on and why so they can exercise their fiduciary responsibility and be good ambassadors for the organization in the community!

Are you prepared if someone gets hits by a bus? When only one or two people are doing all the work, if something happens will others be able to step in and keep the organization moving forward? Conversely, if one of your board members got hit by a bus and you wouldn’t see any effect, you might want to revisit their performance and continued service on your board!

Chasing Money

I believe desperation smells and that everyone but the stinker can smell it. If your organization is desperate for cash, it will be obvious to everyone BUT you. That desperation starts a downward spiral that never ends well.

To that end, how much time, energy, and resources (volunteers, money, etc.) are you expending trying to get money? Are you mounting fundraising campaigns that are yielding nothing? Do you continue to do them thinking if you just cast a wider net, you’ll get something? Remember the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

Are you applying for every single funding opportunity that you run across without regard to whether or not it really aligns with your mission or if you have the infrastructure to monitor and manage it? What happens if you do happen to get that funding?

Doing things “everyone” says you “should” be doing.

When you launch a business (and yes, don’t let the “nonprofit” word fool you, you’re running a business!) there’s plenty of advice about what you should be doing. There are all kinds of products and services that people recommend you buy: insurances, business cards, letterhead, brochures, etc. The list goes on. How much money and energy are you spending on the trappings of a business ? Don’t confuse buying business supplies with building your organization.

Are you re-inventing the wheel or dropping the ball out of ignorance? Do you have a calendar of dates when your regular filings are due? Do you know that in Maryland, all corporations have to file an annual personal property tax return by April 15th or that the IRS expects some sort of filing (a 990 or an e-postcard) on the 15th of the month, five months after your fiscal year ends? Not doing either of those is a quick and easy way to get your business suspended! Take some time to explore resources such as stayexempt.org or Maryland Nonprofits to get reliable information on what you need to do to keep your organization in good standing. Don’t waste your time chasing rumors or creating things from scratch.

And my pet peeve, the new marketing wisdom is that everyone needs to be on Social Media. ALL social media: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pintrest, blogging, and having a slick and professional looking website. And you’re doing it all – poorly. I think your fan base is more likely to appreciate fewer social media outlets, expertly managed than a million outlets, poorly managed. I say this because I am struggling with the same thing and am in the process of culling my accounts.

Engaging other in other activities that Everyone says you should be doing such as Strategic Planning, Annual Campaigns, or Conferences. Is your organization engaged in these activities either to procrastinate from accomplishing real things or without regard for the return on investment of these activities?  Planning and prioritization are good and should be done so as you have capacity to add things, you have important things waiting in the wings.

Just because someone (even me) tells you something, don’t take it for the gospel. What works for you and your organization? What do you have capacity to currently handle?  The beauty of nonprofits is that they reflect the variety of communities and issues that are out there. If you fail, the people you wanted to help will still be in need with no hope on the horizon.


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