I’m constantly amazed by the small-pondness of the city I live in; the ease with which I’m able to connect with six-degrees-of-separation anyone I meet with someone I already know. What amazes me more than this uncanny sense we all know each other, is the recurring instance of people being surprised by something that’s happening here.
As an entrepreneur and a business leader, I was thrilled to learn of the great work being done by SC non-profits and that, perhaps, Clemson Road Creative could assist that good work. Despite this year’s South Carolina Association of Non-Profit Organization’s (SCANPO) annual conference drawing hundreds of attendees from all over the state, I was one of only three people in my local business network to know about it. I dropped in at the conference and was excited by the energy and dedication I could felt emanating off the attendees and organizers.
Learning a New Market
As Clemson Road Creative has just brought on a few non-profit clients, I thought it best to immerse myself in their world. I learned a great deal from SCANPO, now TogetherSC, in terms of the non-profit market (for more on the name change, click here).The conference offered six tracks of breakout sessions on community impact, operations and finance, healthier together, fundraising, leadership and governance, and communications and advocacy. That’s six tracks of six breakouts, or 36 sessions, of learning for SC non-profit professionals.
In one session on impact, the discussion around the table I happened to be sitting at was about using program evaluations to determine what to stop spending time and money on. Non-profits are bootstrapping it, for the most part, and must do more with fewer resources. Knowing what to stop doing is invaluable information.
The science of program evaluation seems daunting, the presenters said, so much so that only 6% of non-profits have regular evaluation practices. Clemson Road Creative has worked with consultancies and software companies to conduct post-project evaluations, so we know the complexities of the process and the hard honesty that such evaluation requires. With all a non-profit tries to do, often with few resources, evaluation is often pushed to the back burner. We can completely understand how that happens. However, we also know how post-mortem examination can evaluate efficacy and how the results can save non-profits valuable and scarce resources.
In another session, led by a foundation’s communications director, the message was: Your goal of social change should be at the center of everything you do. Knowing what your organization is doing to address the issue upon which you were founded is the first step. Building that message into every communication, program, and effort is the second step.
Here again, a consultancy that specializes in research and writing for businesses and organizations can help, if a non-profit is unable to conduct a methodology themselves. With a defined methodology, a non-profit, like any other business, can work within documented processes, fully educate team members, volunteers, and stakeholders of services, and then communicate those definitions to grant writers, funders, and donors who help non-profits sustain their activities. Some of the work we are currently doing with Bpeace is around these organizational management factors.
We’re All in the Same Boat
One similarity that struck me between non-profits and for-profit businesses is that non-profits are inextricably tied to the issue they were founded to address. Solving that issue may take many runs at different initiatives, but the non-profit’s existence is reliant upon its dedication to the issue. Similarly, businesses are built to address a specific problem in a specific market. Dedication wavers if the business’ solution turns out to not be profitable. In business, this is called “pivoting” or changing course because the original need didn’t materialize but a new need revealed itself.
Non-profits only abandon their mission when the issue is solved but sometimes a pivot is appropriate. Consider that March of Dimes was founded to address polio. After raising money for polio research, the organization found success in a vaccine and the inoculation of millions of children. After “solving” polio, March of Dimes pivoted to address the issue of infant mortality and healthy babies.
Another comparison I made, illuminated during the discussion in the impact workshop, was that many non-profits are organized and operated by passionate individuals with experience addressing the issue. Entrepreneurs operate the same way! We are typically dedicated to bringing a service or product to market. But, like Michael Gerber’s book The E Myth suggests, passion for a cause does not necessarily translate into capabilities for achieving a solution, or running the organization that will strive for one. Someone who loves baking, for example, is not necessarily equipped to run a bakery.
I had the sense that the challenges non-profits face are not entirely different from their for-profit counterparts. Dedication to mission, communication of strategy, and delivery of results are consistent key performance indicators no matter what tax delineation an organization declares.
Getting to Know All About You
Conferences have a way of shrinking a pond to the size of a wedding reception. On the first day, attendees may not necessarily know one another or know what to expect from the experience. By the end, though, they’re hugging goodbye and sending a flurry of LinkedIn invites. A common experience like conference attendance can bond people, engage their sense of community, illuminate the common ground between them. Even if, when it’s over, they’ll be back on the hunt for the same donors and competing for the same grants and in need of the same assistance.
In a small city like Columbia, knowing what the others are working on at least provides us all with a sense that good work is being done. We know that issues are being addressed and that the passionate individuals, be they non-profit leaders or entrepreneurs, are hard at work.