FYI Blog

Revisiting a Top Post: Removing the Barriers to Growth

AllisonPorter-21- CroppedOne year ago, I wrote a post entitled Removing the Barriers to Growth: How to Influence Your Organization’s Leadership Through Data. If all of the positive feedback I’ve received since then is any indication—this post definitely struck a nerve.

Over the past year, this is a subject that keeps coming up in my work with colleagues, clients, and boards, as people strive to make informed decisions about the future of their nonprofits. So we’re re-running the original post in hopes that it can help start or further a (perhaps difficult) conversation about investment and strategy, underpinned by cold, hard facts.

Data shows that there is a lot to be optimistic about as the fundraising industry shows clear signs of rebounding and getting back on the path to growth. Growth is not a passive activity however. It requires a clear strategic plan and, more often than not, strategic investment.

Last summer, I attended a leadership conference where some of the leading nonprofit fundraising professionals defined the most common barriers to growth. At the top of the list was the need to educate, inform, and persuade the leadership of our organizations—the CEOs and CFOs, the Boards and Board committees—about the value of our programs in order to clear the way for strategic growth.

As fundraisers, it’s not only our job to raise critically needed funds, but also to educate, explain, and inspire our leadership about why this channel is so effective, and to build confidence in our direct marketing programs by showing the evidence of success.

So how do we do this? Here are a few simple tips for strengthening your communications to your leadership.

Be sure that the goals and objectives are clear. Nonprofits need to proactively hold themselves accountable to the defined goals and objectives, and report transparently to the leadership in their organizations about the successes and failures. Frequently, when we ask leadership if their priority is donors (who represent the reach of the organization), or net dollars, the answer is “all of the above.” The reality is that if you’re trying to make a change, sometimes you can’t have both, and it’s critical to communicate what it will take to meet those goals.

Know your metrics. What are the key performance metrics that will provide evidence of success? Beyond the critical income, expense, and net numbers, report on the key variables that provide a barometer of the health of the program, specifically the variable data around: retention, income per member, donor value, return on investment, and rates of upgrading and overall growth (or decline).

Consider your audience. Like a good direct marketer, knowing your audience is critical to a successful presentation. Think carefully about who’s in the room. Does your executive director have a thorough understanding of direct marketing, or will you need to be sure to use lay terms as you describe your work? Is the board member sitting in the room one who has frequently asked you about retention? If so, be proactive about addressing those common concerns.

Be clear about the story you’re telling. First and foremost, make sure everyone is on the same page about goals and objectives. Defining and articulating these needs to be a group process. It doesn’t help if the executive director of your organization thinks that membership growth and building a broad grassroots movement is your number one strategic priority, and you have been laser focused on net revenue for the last five years. Clearly articulating the strategic goals and objectives at the start of every meeting, and recapping how you got there, will help remind everyone about the process that you’re going through.

Visualize your data. Your audience will involve people who have a deep understanding of the data and the financials, as well as people who don’t. Visualizing your data even as simply as using the charts available in Excel, will make it easier for everyone in the audience to understand even the most complicated reports.

Benchmark your data. It’s extraordinarily valuable for leadership to understand the context of your performance metrics. How do you compare to the rest of the industry? How do you compare to others in your sector? Target Analytics has a ton of publicly available benchmarking data that you can use to provide broad comparisons. You can also participate in their formal benchmarking groups. And you should network thoroughly and reach out to your colleagues and peers and ask them to help you benchmark your numbers. Nothing helps defuse a critical discussion of your performance like being able to say you’re doing better than your number one competitor.

Refresh and repeat. If your organization is making a significant investment in change, this will not be a one-and-done communication. Accountability needs to be ongoing, and reporting back frequently and consistently is critical. Oftentimes the people we are reporting to at the leadership level don’t have their heads in our direct marketing programs on a daily basis, so we need to remind them about where we fit in, what our goals were, and bring them along in the process. Repetition is our friend in this case, being consistent and showing the same views will help to deliberately and methodically bring them along in the process.