Non-profit leaders bemoan the constant need to drum up resources to achieve success. Whether running a charitable entity, trade association or civic organization, leaders envision how far they could advance strategic goals with an injection of additional revenue.
But resources aren’t limited to budgeted dollars. Sometimes, the chance to offset expenses and free up revenue is in plain sight. Three powerful resources often overlooked are smarter engagement of staff, directors and external allies.
Leaders realize the need for staff to keep engines running. They often misstep in undervaluing the valuable insights held by dedicated staff at every level of the organization.
For instance, imagine that as part of a routine task on boosting member satisfaction, a team member working primarily below the radar of the leadership identifies a key trend. Most of the time, that knowledge stays buried with the task. In this case, if the leadership learned of that same trend it could resolve a costly communications issue impacting the full organization and chewing up dollars.
Leaders must use creative methods to gain visibility into staff insights. One way is creating cross-cutting (or interdepartmental) teams charged with resolving high-level problems or opportunities normally reserved for leadership. By welcoming input from staff across departments and seniority levels, avenues emerge for staff insights to flow upwards. As a bonus, the more cross-cutting interaction, the increasingly comfortable staff become in sharing their next hot ideas outside their own departments.
Non-profit leaders often view boards as necessary legal encumbrances, parental watchdogs or, at best, donor pools. But when the right board atmosphere is established, directors can be one of the most powerful assets to help advance the non-profit mission—and do so at no cost.
Directors are more likely to offer time and energy within a board culture that celebrates collaboration, transparency and contribution. Leaders can enable such an environment by picking out a few board champions and influencers and encouraging them to model for their peers how to help the non-profit beyond cutting checks. Meanwhile, non-profit leaders have to make a habit of sharing with the board where they need help most.
By better understanding why and when their help is needed, directors can assist non-profits in so many ways, either as individuals or in small groups. Leaders may ask directors to rally their own organizations, industries and networks to support important non-profit asks. Directors can often lead discrete projects, serve as echo chambers, or craft op-eds or online posts that advance the non-profit’s activities at no additional cost.
What about leaders facing delicate issues that can’t be shared with the rest of the management team, but who could benefit from sage guidance? Look no further than directors who have fought similar battles and are thrilled to help the organization emerge all the stronger by sharing their war stories.
External organizations are among the most powerful entities that can push forward an ally’s agenda without a price tag. Most non-profit leaders are so focused on the time-tested partners who operate in the same field, year after year, that they overlook dozens of potential allies, some who may be unlikely kindred spirits on specific issues or functional areas.
Allies don’t have to be aligned or engaged with a non-profit on every issue. Nor do they have to operate within the same field. Look for entities in different geographies, on opposite ends of the political spectrum or focused on issues that seem only tangential at first glance. Oftentimes, a lack of similarity is valuable. But until leaders reach out to possible allies, it’s hard to know if any organization is interested in building a closer relationship.
Consider a non-profit pushing a social issue that reaches out to a fellow organization that’s operating in a nearby field but has different political support. Winning this ally could lead to support from an entirely different set of stakeholders – policymakers, donors, activists and more – who are typically out of reach.
Strong allies may assist beyond policy issues, helping cross-promote communications, events, membership, research and other activities. And these mutual benefit relationships can work without spending a dime.
Gaining allies takes courage and patience. Leaders must sow seeds early. Knocking on the door of a possible ally for the first time just when assistance is critically needed is not a recipe for success. Familiarity comes before action. Building rapport, finding commonality and keeping the relationship current may result in potent resources when needed most.
Tom Kimbis ’93 is a principal at Enflection, a Washington, D.C., firm specializing in energy and non-profit consulting. He formerly served as the executive vice president, general counsel and interim president of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the national trade association of the solar energy industry. His experience also includes leading the solar program of the U.S. Department of Energy and serving as the first executive director of The Solar Foundation, a national educational non-profit. He has served on a number of boards of non-profit entities. Tom is a frequent spokesperson on energy issues in the media and has served on many international delegations. He can be reached at [email protected].