A Narrowly Avoided Crash (or the importance of knowing the lay of the land)

“You’re saying I should go?” my friend’s son asked.

“Yes” she replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, go.”

My friend was sharing about teaching her son to drive.  She thought they were turning right. He thought they were going straight. The result was almost disastrous. Thankfully no one was hurt. And in full disclosure, the picture is not my friend’s son. Communication can be so essential – but just as important is to understand the lay of the land. Understanding what the next steps will be – and why those are the right steps to take.

It is just as essential in nonprofit management as it is in teaching someone how to drive. If we don’t know the lay of the land, it will be extremely difficult to plan and avoid being sideswiped by the next incoming trend. Too often, in many local community organizations, we don’t take the time to look ahead. And granted, I understand that time is limited.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on:

  • Sources of charitable gifts (and where the gifts are going to). Giving USA has been producing an annual study tracking this for several decades. With the exception of a few years, giving has continually increased year-over-year. There are two newcomers in the field who are providing data on this as well: Philanthromax’s Atlas of Giving and Blackbaud’s Index.
  • Trends in your community, including who the local leaders are, whether giving is typically public or anonymous, and what social issues are getting attention in the local paper(s).
  •  The field of professional fundraising (perhaps better named fund development). Fund development refers to all the activities that develop relationships and increase long-term potential for giving, rather than just the activities that result in immediate gifts. And it’s good to remember that the best gifts often take many months – or years – of reaching out to someone and helping them get to know the organization better.
  • Ethics related to serving the public good. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) has some great resources on their site (including the ethics statement that members agree to adhere to). Some things that are common practice in other fields are not appropriate for nonprofit organizations. For example, paying a fundraising on commission is considered unethical. As is any personal benefit for board members. Again, the AFP website has some great resources and case studies available.
  • And finally, keeping an eye on any other general trends that could potentially impact your organization. Once every six months or every year, spend time trying to identify any potential risks. Do you receive the bulk of your money from one funder or type of funder? Are their licensing laws that are changing that will impact you, etc.

These are just a few things to keep an eye on. Can you think of others?

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