For Impact


Trends v. Fundamentals in Nonprofit Funding

On Change in the Social Sector | | Nick Fellers

We’re asked to talk about ‘trends in philanthropy’ or ‘trends in fundraising’ which troubles me because the social sector needs more discussion about fundamentals – not trends. If you ask me to talk about ‘trends’ I will use this as a lens to highlight the lack of fundamentals – think of it as me spinning the conversation – it’s all good.

Every business in and sector lives and breaths by fundamentals, first.

  • A clear vision/direction (illustrated a clear MESSAGE).
  • A clear revenue MODEL.
  • A clear PLAN including an understanding of the MATH (impact math and income math) to get there (e.g. goals, levels, etc.)

As I’m writing this to compare and contrast trends and fundamentals I realize most of the trends (that get discussed) are really fads because too often they’re ‘the next big thing’ and don’t have staying power. These could include:

  • Earned Income (Social Enterprise)
  • Lance Armstrong’s bracelets
  • 5K races
  • Social Networking Funding (The Obama effect)

Maybe if they were backed on a case-by-case basis with fundamentals they would be true trends and not fads.

Example – Earned Income: I went to a Social Enterprise Alliance gathering four years ago. What I witnessed were some orgs starting earned income ventures without attention to fundamentals, no clear plan and no willingness to do the math to see that they were losing $50 on every widget they produced. On top of that, one speaker cautioned, “It’s hard enough to start a business with people that have their lives together let alone those that don’t.” Four years later 16 out of 17 orgs I interviewed abandoned the earned income stream – each for the lack the fundamentals outlined above.

The reason most small businesses fail is because they don’t have a grasp on fundamentals. Nonprofits often don’t ‘fail’ in the same sense that for-profit businesses do [running out of money]. Instead, they limp along for years longer, subsidized by passion, volunteerism and employees on the fast-track to burnout (human capital model)… this unique resource model is often a masking agent for a lack of fundamentals.

If you’re a board member, a senior staff person or development officer you can do a great service to your organization, your team and your cause by leading a discussion on the fundamentals… by leading a discussion to clarify the direction or purpose of the organization, by clarifying the model and by working through the math. This discussion is simple, not easy.