Giving Relevance Depth

When a nonprofit is relevant it is closely connected to its community. Connections are created, sustained, and grown based upon the value the connection provides to all parties.

One of the symptoms of a struggling nonprofit is its low or declining community support. Upon further investigation, it usually becomes obvious that the nonprofit provides minimal, if any, value for its community. The nonprofit’s leadership team (board and senior staff) often feel the nonprofit and its mission are providing significant value. Sometimes the intended value is not delivered or is below the community’s expectations. While the nonprofit has many reasons for being unable to deliver on its intentions, communities measure value by the results produced. Intentions without results are broken promises, which stymies building connections and erodes existing connections.

It is helpful to talk about a community as if it was a thinking, breathing, homogeneous entity. However, it is actually the sum of many disparate parts that seldom actually work together. Therefore, relevance means different things to different groups. Measuring up to all of those expectations is difficult, especially if you have never thought about how the different groups measure relevance.

The temporal dimension of relevance is one point to consider. For example, a food pantry that gives families a sack of groceries is relevant for a very short period of time. As soon as the family has eaten all of the food, the relevance of the service provided (passing out a sack of groceries) ends. Giving the family a sack of groceries and helping the adults find employment extends the relevance. However, if the family becomes homeless because it is unable to manage it finances or the employment ends, the relevance of the nonprofit’s services ends. If the sack of groceries in combination with the training offered by the nonprofit breaks the cycle of poverty, the nonprofit’s relevance becomes durable.

Scale is another dimension of relevance. Breaking the cycle of poverty for 10 families every year is good but has limited value if there are 10,000 families in poverty. In addition, if the number of successful families remains at 10 each year and the number of families in poverty grows each year, the relevance is declining because it is unable to keep pace with the community’s needs. Therefore, the nonprofit must focus on growing the number served at a faster rate than the demand, and the nonprofit must serve what the community feels is a meaningful number of clients.

Measurability is another dimension of relevance. If a youth organization claims to be changing lives because it is using a process which research has shown to be effective, it may feel that it is relevant. However, its relevance is an anecdote. While the anecdote (other people’s success) proves the process works, there needs to be proof that the nonprofit is effectively using the process and producing results similar to or better than what the anecdote predicts. Without its own statistics, the nonprofit is asking donors and the community to take its success on faith. The anecdote will provide a level of relevance. When the nonprofit has its own evidence, its relevance to the community and the level of support it receives from the community and its donors will significantly increase. The increase will more than justify the effort required to gather the evidence.

Consistency and reproducibility are also dimensions of relevance. When a nonprofit serves 100 women each year and 10 succeed one year, 20 succeed another year, and only 5 succeed in the recent year, there is a lack of consistency. The lack of consistency suggests that the nonprofit is only relevant once in while or only under specific circumstances. Donors and the community have a hard time knowing when providing support is justified. Reproducibility is similar. Let us assume the nonprofit makes its process consistent. If it expands its services to cover women from a different demographic group but is unable to maintain its consistency, it suggests that success is limited to a segment of the population. A community with a high level of diversity, demands a nonprofit have reproducible results if it is going to be seen as relevant to the community rather than relevant to a demographic group.

Next Step:

Determine your nonprofit’s relevance across all of the dimensions

Measure your nonprofit’s value to its community

Identify the areas of relevance your nonprofit must improve to increase its value, community support, and sustainability

The value of a nonprofit to its community is measured by its relevance across all of the dimensions. A nonprofit that spends $5,000 per year over four years and is successful more than 75% of the time preventing young men from become criminals, saves its community $80,000 per year in incarceration costs for the life of each young man. Besides the economic value of the nonprofit, it is producing a meaningful, measurable, and durable result for its community. If it works with young men across the demographic spectrum, it is has a process that is reproducible and scalable. In short, its community sees it as being very relevant.

By focusing on providing meaningful, measurable, durable, consistent, reproducible, and scalable results, your nonprofit will be able to demonstrate its value and relevance to your community. It will probably take time and effort to meet the five measures of relevance. It is worth the effort. Along the way, you will find that your donors become more generous, loyal, and engaged. In addition, you will enjoy an increase in community support and sustainability.

If you want to increase your nonprofit’s relevance, focus on increasing your mission’s effectiveness.

Take It Further:

Use your nonprofit’s change in relevance as an indication of the effectiveness of your budgeting process (demonstrate to your donors and community that your nonprofit is a good steward of the funds it receives)

Make increasing relevance the theme of each of your status reports to the board and encourage the board to make relevance the theme of each of its meetings

Ask your board development committee to use relevance as a measure for evaluating the effectiveness of your board


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