Behaving like a non-profit – 7/6/15

Becoming a nonprofit and behaving like a nonprofit are two different things. Becoming a non-profit involves filling out forms and committing to a mission, including not making a profit. Having worked in industry for 30 plus years, it seems that avoiding making a profit is a trivial task. However, there’s much more to being a successful nonprofit.

In many respects, running a small all-volunteer nonprofit like ours has more in common with a sole proprietorship business than it does with a medium-sized or large nonprofit. There is a lot of “seat of the pants” operation, identifying what needs to be done within a constrained budget, and reacting to opportunities and challenges without well-defined processes as a guide.

As I learn more about the way nonprofits operate, much of what I read describes a  medium-sized business: with dedicated staff, an Executive Board removed from the day-to-day operations, issues with coordinating between staff, volunteers, and donors, and special care given to large donors who are coddled in much the same way large customers of businesses are. This may make sense for larger organizations, but that’s not what PBDD needs now. At present, we are accomplishing our goals effectively with minimum overhead and all-volunteer labor.

One major focus for most non-profits is fundraising, and I am sitting on the other side of the table from what I’m used to. For may years, my wife and I have supported a number of charities, and have encouraged family and friends to support causes we believe in, but this is different. Now, if I ask for money, I’m responsible for ensuring it is spent well.

To date, PBDD operates on a shoestring and funding from our leadership. (I use the third person to create the illusion of distance.) One key tool which everyone in the nonprofit business talks about is the donor database. This is a tool which tracks donors, manages volunteers, and assists in fundraising efforts. At the moment, I can keep track of the contributors on my fingers, but I don’t want to be in a situation where we don’t have the systems we need to support growth. So I’m investigating options.

I have a technical background and have done my share of evaluating complex management tools, but it’s a bit overwhelming. Many of the tools assume a fundraising structure, staff, and well-defined processes in place, and a collection of donor data in another tool, like Excel. There are numerous articles explaining why a spreadsheet does not qualify as a donor database. I see the value in selecting a good donor management tool, but I can’t justify the expense. Fortunately, with help from donated software available through techsoup.org, there are some powerful and well-regarded packages available for a lower initial cost.

At times, I feel like a toddler running on a playground trying to keep up with the older children, those who clamber across the monkey bars while I look on in awe. But if PBDD does not look like a “typical” nonprofit corporation in today’s world, I remind myself that with a website and a few dedicated volunteers, we are working with Partners and providing service to agencies that bridge the digital divide, and that is what is important, not running queries on the donor retention rate.

We are taking steps towards reaching our goals, and while I recognize that fundraising may be an important part of supporting that growth in the longer term, it is not the most important element of what we’re trying to do. There is still much to learn and I’m confident that it will be interesting and a challenge. I’m going to work hard to keep the focus on our mission: to support and encourage nonprofit agencies to bridge the digital divide.

I look forward to the next steps.

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