When is the last time you considered your nonprofit's mission statement? Jim Weber says one of the keys to good leadership is a clear statement. Here he explores the opportunities for repositioning your cause to increase your funding.
If the initial premise of what your nonprofit does isn’t correctly defined, the rest of everything you do – no matter how hard you work and no matter how good your intentions are or love of the cause is – will probably lead to mediocre results and donor apathy, and certainly no spectacular breakthroughs or solutions.
The importance of mission
One of the biggest influences on my career, a man who started me on the path of recognising the importance of mission, is Simon Sinek who, back in 2009, worked for the Rand Corporation, which describes itself as a global policy think tank.
In September 2009, Sinek did an inspiring TED Talk called How Great Leaders Inspire Action. In it he convincingly illustrated that certain companies and individuals stand out as leaders, and gave the examples of Apple, Coca Cola, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Having researched these companies and people, he came up with what I thought was a simple pattern of what these memorable organisations and individuals had in common. It was that people don’t remember or buy solely on what an organisation or person does; we also need to know why they do it.
In other words, you don’t just buy the what you also buy the why. Martin Luther King didn’t say, “I have a plan…” He said, “I have a dream…” He sold the why with the what.
This is true leadership and I can say that in the seven years since I came across Sinek’s talk, I can prove that charities that consistently promote both what they do and why they do it will experience increased donor retention, increased acquisition, and increased average donations, major gifts and gifts in wills.
Utilising your mission to tell your donors about the great acts of kindness and care you achieve on behalf of them and their generosity, tied together with a statement about why you do these acts of assistance, will lead to dramatically improved results. Stand out: most of us only sell the what.
Getting your focus right
There has never been a more important time in the fundraising sector to show leadership and ensure your organisation’s plans are built on a thought-through mission statement.
Have you noticed the interesting range of nonprofit-related discussion topics that have received headlines here and around the world – topics that didn’t receive much air time in the past? These include:
• Transparency, administration costs and how much of a donor’s dollar goes to the cause.
• Failing donor trust in some overseas markets, especially in the UK and the US.
• The aftermath of the UK Olive Cooke story and the horrific charity practices that were uncovered. What donor practices does your charity follow if you have a donor who is ageing and perhaps not of complete sound mind and you know it? Do you have a policy?
• How much nonprofit CEOs make and why.
• Whether there are too many charities.
I believe all of these issues and more, which have appeared in the last few years, are a direct result of a lack of regular review of mission. No-one would be asking these questions if the sector had a strong outcomes focus, and each and every charity had a clear statement of what they are doing and why.
As US fundraising genius Dan Pallotta stated in his 2013 TED Talk, "The legacy of the fundraising industry, should not be that we spent less than 20% of our income on admin. The legacy should be that we solved or decreased the incidence of some social or medical issue or challenge.”
If we can say the latter, for example that we have eliminated some horrible disease, is anyone going to put up their hand and say, “Yeah, that’s great but what was your admin cost?” It simply won’t happen.
But we are not in an outcomes-focused environment. The questions mentioned are being asked more and more frequently. I think this is simply because our mission statements aren’t great and aren’t being utilised enough in our stakeholder communications to say here are our outcomes or how we are tracking.
Is there an overabundance of charities?
Are there too many charities? The answer is yes and no. It depends on the type of charity. In doing my research into mission statements, I found there were three categories:
Local specialised These include those such as day care, elderly care, schools, universities, hospitals etc. According to the ACNC, and I agree, this category is not overcrowded. That leaves around 47,500 charities to categorise.
Solutions based These organisations recognise a problem and/or challenge and try to either reduce its incidence or eradicate the issue altogether. The mission clearly states the goal and the plan shows the steps required to get there.
Service based With these types of charities, a problem is recognised and a service provided, for example making people with diseases more comfortable, providing food and shelter to homeless people, and providing assistance dogs for people who are sight impaired.
In looking at which charities occupy the solutions and service categories comes a surprising result. Being very generous with my interpretation of mission statements, there are fewer than 300 charities in the solutions category, however in the service category there are approximately 47,200 charities with mission statements that overlap, sound similar and are focused on accepting the status quo per the core cause.
It is not a bad thing to provide care but do we need this many charities in this space? No! So are there too many charities? In the service category the answer is a resounding yes.
Your mission determines your category of operation and your opportunity to manage the amount of competition for donor dollars in your space, which is why your mission is so important and why it needs to be regularly reviewed.
In the case where your nonprofit is the only charity in town to cover a specific cause or at least the competition is limited to a small number in your category, ensure your nonprofit has a local focus.
If yours is a solutions charity you are in a rare space and probably the only player covering your particular cause. In promising a solution or at least a reduction in the problem being addressed, it is a gutsy area to be in but donors will understand your direction and support you.
In the overcrowded service charity space there is opportunity to review your mission and dominate your category. In this space there will be many other operators focusing on your same cause. This may be because yours started as a local charity in one city and then expanded to part of or a whole state-wide operation and there are others in other geographic settings around the country providing similar services.
There are many reasons why charities in the service area compete with others. Consider merging with other charities or redefining your mission so your charity can dominate your cause space. This could lead to solid support and growing to a size to truly make a difference.
Getting your mission right and utilising your mission in your communications offers all sorts of opportunities in today’s competitive market. Take the leadership step to review and set your mission for great outcomes.
After 35 years of marketing and strategy work in Fortune 500 companies in Canada and Australia, Jim started Fundraising Fixers to support nonprofits with their strategies and assist them in finding new sources of funding. He is on the Fundraising Institute of Australia Victoria Executive.