Taking Care of Business

We all know them—those nonprofits that have a wonderful mission, really good programs, but the operations side of the house is run so unprofessionally and so poorly that we are constantly amazed they make it through yet another week.

I’m not talking here about the organization that struggles to make ends meet, though the places I am talking about do that, too. I am talking about places that simply do not take care of business.

Too many nonprofit organizations like to protest that they are not, really, businesses at all. They are mission-driven. They are good people doing good works. But if you don’t do well at doing good works you won’t be doing anything much at all for long.

And besides, non-profits arebusinesses. After all, most are 501(c)(3) corporations. Like all businesses, there are rules and regulations that must be met. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, most of the time I think it is something very good.

Picture your favorite on-the-edge nonprofit. Think about the work it does, the clients it serves. Now picture it as a well-run organization, with policies and procedures that are in place and actually followed. How many of these would neglect to send appropriate thank you letters to donors? And now, picture those donors. Instead of complaining they are happy and happy to give follow on (and perhaps larger) gifts.

In this organization, budgets matter. Staff (and the board!) knows what it can spend and for what. Programs can grow and flourish; more clients can be serviced.

And staff….they know the job they are to perform and whether they are accomplishing what they are supposed to accomplish.

All right, I admit it. I do have a rich fantasy life. And even most for profit businesses don’t reach those standards of excellence, or even of okay. But that’s not a good excuse for us not to do better.

One problem is that too many nonprofit leaders, and development directors, don’t ever educate themselves on the legalities and, yes, the niceties of running a nonprofit. They don’t know when they have to send substantiation or quid pro quo statements or what the difference is between the two.

Staff and board members don’t understand nonprofit accounting rules, and therefore, are too often confused about when and for what purpose they can touch certain pots of money. And they don’t, therefore, understand what kind of gifts they need to raise and what kind of donors they should cultivate.

While it is good to be passionate about the mission of your organization, it just isn’t enough. We all need to be professional and insist on a level of knowledge and proficiency in every aspect of what we do.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at janet@janetlevineconsulting.com. Her online grantwriting class is available at www.janetlevineconsulting.com/classes.html.