Turn Down Most Opportunities

Very few short-term opportunities provide long-term benefits.  In fact, some short-term opportunities create long-term obligations.  Think about the homeless shelter that agreed to let a youth group plant a garden in unused space.  The fruits from the garden were suppose to be used to feed the shelter clients.  Though the garden was flourishing, the shelter needed space for a play area for the shelter families.  If the shelter’s goal is improving the quality of life for those who are homeless, the play area is a priority.  However, that means breaking a commitment to the youth group and accepting an increase in the cost of supplies (buy fresh food rather than grow it).

Breaking the commitment hurts the nonprofit’s reputation, increases expenses, and reduces an opportunity to collaborate.  Keeping the commitment controls expenses, reduces the quality of life for the families being served, and will lower client engagement, which affects client outcomes.  It also creates a drift away from the mission.

In retrospect, a collaboration that was mission-centric for both organizations would have prevented the problem.  However, without clear direction from the board to only pursue mission-centric opportunities, it is easy for someone to endorse an idea that makes use of an unused resource and saves money.  Every nonprofit wants to be efficient and the garden has the potential to increase the efficiency of the shelter.  Without clear direction, it is easy for a well-meaning decision to create unforeseen problems in excess of any benefits.

Small nonprofits often feel like all resources are scarce.  The feeling can be intensified by the way the board talks about the availability of resources and especially the importance of money.  Therefore, it is tempting for the staff to let money or efficiency trump the mission and client needs.

Providing the proper standards for staff and board decision making is more than expecting everything to be mission centric.  Client success needs to be careful defined.  When client success is limited to program completion, it feeds that same short-term thinking as letting efficiency trump the mission.

Every client is unique and requires slightly differentiated services to achieve optimal success.  However, treating every client like the average client optimizes efficiency.  It is easier to explain efficiency to a donor than effectiveness.  It is easier to measure efficiency than to measure effectiveness.  Donors think that good stewardship is demonstrated by increasing effectiveness.  Increasing donor generosity depends on increasing effectiveness.  Increasing sustainability depends on increasing donor support and increasing community support.  While it is easier to focus on efficiency, your nonprofit will have the support it needs to thrive if you focus on effectiveness.

Ensuring that every opportunity fits with your nonprofit’s strategy will also help prevent the next good-looking opportunity from being a distraction.  Every opportunity should be a steppingstone on the path defined by your strategy.  Many short-term opportunities are dead ends or they lead away from the main path.  In either case, there is little or no return on the investment.

Next Step:

Ask your board to establish a formal strategy for your nonprofit

Ask your board to create policies that discourage pursuing short-term opportunities

Ask your board to create policies that encourage selecting mission-centric activities, activities that better meet client needs, activities that increase effectiveness, and activities that increase donor engagement

Ask your board to prioritize long-term success measures over short-term health indicators

There are many opportunities to create short-term gains.  The opportunities to develop long-term benefits are less frequent, require more work, and often involve innovations and a significant investment of funds.  The right opportunities take a significant investment of time, talent, and other resources.  They also have higher risks associated with them.  Their return on investment is significant in practical, financial, and intangible ways.  For example, by its nature it is impossible for a short-term opportunity to provide any sustainability benefits.  However, every successful long-term opportunity increases sustainability in many different ways.

Take It Further:

Evaluate opportunities based upon their intangible but measurable, meaningful, and durable benefits

Ask your board to clearly define short-term in months or years

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