Why are some nonprofits and churches successful while others are not?

This question comes to me in one form or another almost daily.  There are different answers for different organizations, but usually it comes down to just a few items. In fact, these are not very complex solutions, but you’d be surprised how many organizations fail to follow them.

1.     Vision – Every organization must have a vision that drives their actions. Proverbs tells us that without vision the people perish. The same is true for organizations. Without vision it’s quite difficult to recruit effective leaders or engage transformational donors. Vision is not just about what you’re currently doing. It’s also about the future and what you want to be or become as an organization.

2.     Leadership – This is true for churches and nonprofits: leadership is crucial to success. Leadership certainly includes the CEO or Pastor. Yet successful organizations also have board members who take an active interest in organizational life. They ask questions and challenge decisions. In fact, trouble often comes when board members rubber stamp decisions. They may be very nice people, but one has to ask, are they equipped to lead?

Also, even if they’re good, often there are simply not enough of them. Having only 5 or 6 board members might make for easier decision-making, but do those “harmonious” members give you the best decisions. As Tom Peters noted in the 1980s, sometimes the best decisions don’t necessarily come from harmony; they come after organizations work their way through the chaos of disagreement.  That’s why diversity in the leadership team is crucial. And, when it comes to things like fundraising, enhancing organizational visibility, or tending the flock it requires more board members to help.

3.     Information – Sir Arthur Cannon Doyle once said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data…one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

A client of ours was getting ready for a capital campaign. They needed to find new donors, so I explained that some of those donors might be right there in their database. They theorized without facts that there weren’t any. However, we finally convinced them to conduct a database analysis/wealth screening and found 18 multi-millionaires about whom they knew nothing.

Another time we worked with a church that also wanted to conduct a capital campaign. They were convinced they could achieve a lofty goal, until we did some interviews and a church survey. Fully 65% of respondents were against the campaign. Without this information, they may have failed miserably and created a major member uprising.

4.     A Plan – People want to know that you’ve thought through what you’re doing, particularly if you want them to make a financial investment. An effective planning process starts with information gathering through a stakeholder survey.  That information helps you identify critical issues, and then develop goals, strategies and action plans to address those issues. Whether it involves enhancing or growing membership or improving services, you need a plan.

A plan also answers critical questions. Does what you’re planning make sense? Is it the best alternative? Have you considered other options? Who are the leaders and what is the timing? What’s driving your plan? All of these and more are important planning questions that should be addressed before you engage members or donors to help.

5.     Action – It is really where all of this converges.  You can have vision, leadership, information and a plan but if you don’t have action you achieve nothing.  As Mark Twain said, “Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.” Organizations that achieve follow through on their plans with action.