Five Challenges For 2015

Five Challenges For 2015

Is your nonprofit operating for the modern era or with a template from the past?

The turn of the calendar to a fresh new year offers the opportunity to set new goals and make new promises. What will 2015 bring for the nonprofit sector? And what can the sector do to improve its practices? Here are five resolutions to consider.

Walk the walk. People of color in Minnesota are disproportionately low-income. There is an embarrassingly high gap in educational achievement between children of color and their white peers, and too many of our civic institutions are not inclusive. We’re definitely talking about this. Evidence that the sector’s racial equity conversation is becoming more robust includes the recent United Way forum Closing the Education and Income Gap, grantmaking initiatives like the Northside Funders Group and internal reports like Minnesota Philanthropy Partners’ Racial Equity Framework. In 2000, Minnesota counted about 11 percent people of color among the total population; by 2020 that percentage will more than double. As our state’s population changes and becomes much more diverse, our nonprofit institutions need to change along with it.

There is strong consensus among nonprofit leaders that Minnesota has to get better, faster, at creating educational and economic opportunity for all. It’s time to act, not only talk, about racial equity in our civic organizations. An October 2014 PolicyLink report on racial equity in the Twin Cities calls on Minnesota “to dismantle racial barriers within institutions” and “to ensure meaningful community participation, voice, and leadership.” The nonprofit sector should lead by example. Think about what you can do, then do it. It’s time to walk the walk.  

Operate at a surplus. Financial management in the nonprofit sector has improved significantly, and our state has great sources for financial training and consulting through organizations like MAP for Nonprofits (Management Assistance Project), the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the Nonprofits Assistance Fund. Yet too many nonprofit managers and boards allow their organizations to operate with deficits or merely balanced budgets. It’s time for everyone to think about operating at a surplus (even if a modest one). Having money in the bank not only provides economic security, buffering organizations from erratic funding sources, but it also empowers freedom of action, providing cash to explore new initiatives. For decades the received wisdom was that nonprofit meant no surplus. Let’s put that one to bed, permanently. Spend less than you earn, and keep some money in the bank.

Get transparent. Nonprofits operate with special privileges and protections, starting with the deductibility of charitable contributions and exemption from property taxation. As entities operating in the public interest and with public support, nonprofits have a duty to be transparent. The Internet makes it possible for organizations to easily share information such as audits, federal tax forms (990s), board and staff data, and results and impact metrics. But too many nonprofits fail at full transparency. In doing so they also fail to tell their stories and share their wisdom with the public, potential donors and colleagues who could benefit from their ideas and results.

Wonder what you should and could be sharing? Think like a journalist. If media wrote about your organization using only publicly available information, could they offer an accurate and complete picture based on the information you provide? If not, it’s time to get transparent. Speaking as a writer and researcher, most organizations fail at the giant opportunity to use their “about us” web presence to their best advantage.

Be digital. “Being digital” is no longer optional. The public expects to find nonprofits online, just like any other business or government entity. Barriers to a digital presence are lower than ever due to low-cost, open source, easily deployable software. There is simply no excuse to neglect creating a presence that represents your organization in social media and other digital platforms. Think it’s not important? Think again. Digital is a primary means that Americans use to access news and information. As of January 2014, 87 percent of U.S. adults use the Internet (among people age 18 to 29, it’s 97 percent) and of those, 74 percent use social media (89 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds). You need to be there.

Honor your public service. “Nonprofit” is not merely a convenient business model through which to offer programs and services to the public. The tax-exempt, public benefit structure exists for a civic purpose and within a democratic framework. It encourages citizens to come together, outside of government, to solve problems and to provide civic structures for educational, scientific, religious, literary and artistic pursuits that don’t conform to the disciplines of a market economy. Nonprofits function best when they heed this higher calling. In doing so they can motivate volunteerism, encourage civic engagement, and help democracy prosper. Nonprofits are in a unique position to inspire people’s sense of meaning and of shared purpose. In words and in deeds, the nonprofit sector can do more to bring civic values to life. What will you resolve for 2015?

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.