Nonprofits that are successful are successful for a reason.
Sometimes it’s affiliation with the rich and famous. Sometimes it’s nostalgia. Sometimes it’s luck. But most times, it’s because nonprofits are good at what they do and are good at communicating that to those who fund them.
Time, however, can erode this equation. Times change. Needs change. People change. Nonprofits are often not good at change. They are good at what they do, and usually, that is what they have done for some time. The problem is that the world is, in fact changing, and donors are, in fact, changing. This presents not two problems, but three problems:
- First, how to introduce innovation into long-standing programs.
- Second, how to change fundraising tactics to meet new expectations.
- Third, and perhaps most difficult, how to ensure that both sets of changes work together toward common ends.
In the nonprofit sector, innovation to meet changing needs or to communicate new approaches to donors is neither easy nor common. Nonprofits are cause driven, not market driven. Cause – or the mission – drives the organization. Change has to fit within cause, and cause is not a technology or a package or a brand – rather, cause is a passion. Adapting innovation to passion is a delicate matter, which takes time, vision, and eloquence. And where organizations are stable and productive relative to their cause, there is precious little urgency in doing so.
Is there a way to square this circle? Is there a way to change and remain the same? Is there a way for innovation to be organic to cause not bolted on to cause? Is there any evidence that, if such a strategy could be conceived and implemented, it would strengthen fundraising without compromising the organization in the eyes of traditional donors?
For Catholic organizations, finding a way to answer these questions in the affirmative is essential.
Catholic organizations live both in the world of change and in the world of tradition. They must do so. Their donors may overwhelmingly reflect the world of tradition, but the next generation of their donors will reflect the world of change – in cause and in expectations.
For instance, Edmundite Missions is in the beginning phases of successfully innovating programs – consistent with the founders’ legacy of a 80 year history – as a pre-eminent poverty-fighting organization in the Black Belt of the United States, one of the poorest regions of the nation. The innovation is organic to that legacy, growing innovation out of history, not bolting it onto history, and in doing so, renews loyalty and attracts new funders at scale.
There are several keys to developing and implementing innovation, especially where reputation and credibility are deeply tied to history and a record of success.
First: loyalty leads to legacy. Innovation in Catholic organizations must tie into organizational legacy, and where that happens, it will achieve buy-in from founders and supporters.
Second: rigorous analysis of needs. Change for change’s sake is a pointless exercise in vanity. Innovation has to reflect both a need and a better approach to need.
Third: a clear goal. As that great American oracle, Yogi Berra, observed, if you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there. The absolutely hardest part of any innovations strategy is articulating a clear and measurable goal.
Fourth: time. Expectations must be decadal. Speed can be an enemy.
Fifth: creativity. Innovation that is informed by commercial experience, by new networks of leaders, by academic analysis, by global analogies, and by failure and success brings more valuable input to the fifth requirement, disciplined planning.
Sixth: planning. Not lip service to planning but detailed, task, and time driven plans that drive results.
Seventh: capacity. Related to planning, attention to existing human resources and infrastructure capacity is key. Change management requires core stability.
Eighth: communications. Communicate consistently so that change becomes part of the cause and so that fundraising can make a living chapter in the organization's story, a way to excite current donors and attract new donors.
Ninth: measurement. Innovation is never linear; there are constant decisions about priorities and pathways. Those decisions must be informed by performance data.
At the National Catholic Development Conference, we will both tell the unfolding story of Edmundite Missions and discuss how what we have learned – the good and the difficult – can help Catholic nonprofits to innovate in programs and create a new age of Catholic philanthropy.