Nonprofit Revenue Model

Strategic Nonprofit Resource Development Planning

When I wrote this post I was sitting in the main session of a two-day  conference (here in Portland) dedicated to exploring the themes of social innovation, enterprise and impact. As I thought about this conference in the context of two recent strategic plans that I completed, I was struck at the disconnect between nonprofits and potential funders around the language and ideas related to resource development. While there is this growing number of thinkers, funders, and policy makers using terms like social innovation, impact investing, and venture capital, the average nonprofit continues to think about resource development from the perspective of “seeking support for programs.”  While many nonprofit agencies can likely tell you what percentage of agency revenues come from grants versus donations, there are not enough nonprofit leaders who can discuss resource development as strategy.

Stepping back to a few posts ago, I used Google’s Ngram Viewer to illustrate the idea of nonprofit program accountability. I again wanted to again use the tool to create a visual of an idea. Inset is an graph showing the growth in the use of some philanthropy terms including: public-private partnerships, strategic philanthropy, venture philanthropy, and social return on investments. While I will disclaim that the graph is not scientific, it visually suggests that somewhere in the mid-nineties there was dramatic parallel increase in the use of all of these terms. The disconnect that emerges is that many nonprofits are still talking about “finding resources to support programs” while the world of philanthropy is increasingly talking about “philanthropy as investing.”

As I went coming back to typing this post, midday through the  conference, I was sitting in a conversation about nonprofit revenue streams and the contrast was startling. While the conversation was about thinking about revenue expansion, the discussion has degenerated into “Does anyone have any additional ideas for fundraising that are less intense than…?” Another comment, “I maintain small bank accounts with several local banks so I can hit each one of them up for $200-500 donation each year.” Disconnect. Asking for small random amounts of money from multiple sources is not investment thinking. So the question remains, how do we create a strategic shift in thinking at the nonprofit organizational level? I would like to suggest the following actions.

1.  Inform your thinking: There are a number of contemporary philanthropic books and articles that should be on the library shelf of every nonprofit executive director. Three basic texts include the following (external links) Essence of Strategic Giving, Money Well Spent, and Driving Social Change. Coupled with these resources are a series of articles and monographs referenced below that will help in creating a deeper understanding of capital and philanthropy.  Together, they are a critical starting place for reframing the conversation of nonprofit resource development.

2.  Take stock of where you are today: The next stage of shifting thinking is to create a basic profile of your organization’s current and historic revenue and cost model. Along with defining the cost structure of programs and services, a nonprofit also needs assess the variables of revenue reliability, autonomy and revenue concentration (see resources below). Taking stock is a strategic conversation that, depending on the size of the group, might involve such methods as scenario planning, assumption-based planning, or even open-space technology. The goal of the ‘taking stock exercise’ is to create a shared understanding of the organizational financial baseline, its strengths and weaknesses and how well the “load-bearing” fiscal assumptions might hold under a variety of scenarios.

3.  Understand Your Capital Needs Related to the “taking stock exercise” is the next step, which is creating a clear understanding of your capital needs. Oversimplifying the discussion a bit, capital needs can be sorted into three buckets:

Operating Capital: Most nonprofit organizations focus on operating capital almost to the exclusion of any other forms of capital. Operating capital is the revenue required to support the organizations programs and services. Clearly this is the major focus of nonprofit organizations as it represents the capital required to keep the doors open.

Infrastructure Capital: Less common as strategy is an organization’s infrastructure capital needs. When it does appear, it is most commonly related to bricks. When a nonprofit seeks to build or buy a building, the infamous capital campaign is launched and the entire focus of the organization is on soliciting financial resources to pay for building, construction or renovation. However, I would like to suggest that nonprofits need to think infrastructure capital beyond bricks. Beyond buildings, nonprofit agencies need to consider infrastructure from the standpoint of evaluation systems, databases, technology infrastructure as well as resources to enter into meaningful collaborative relationships with other nonprofit organizations (such as shared space or shared back-office functions). By identifying infrastructure as separate from operations, it creates opportunities to bundle capital needs differently. Infrastructure capital might be sought as major gifts, restricted capital grants or low (or no) interest loans.

Expansion Capital: The third bucket of capital is that used for growing programs and services. I intentionally placed infrastructure capital in between operating and expansion capital because there is space in between the two. Unfortunately in seeking operating capital, many nonprofits blur sustaining existing programs and services and developing new ones as a way to create stable revenues.  All programs are lumped together and funding is sought for a bundle of related programs and services, some established, some new and some sorta new. However, sustaining existing programs and expanding or creating new programs are distinct functions and imply different motivations and risks for the funder. Ideally operations and expansion should be viewed as separate functions.

When an organization goes through the exercise of exploring capital needs, the connection between capital and strategy becomes clear. Indeed, I would argue that, without a clear strategy, the exploration of capital is challenging. Conversely, by connecting strategy with capital needs an organization not only can categorize capital needs but also begin to think about staging capital needs.

4.  Assessing the Capital “Market:” The next step is to begin to assess you options for capital. It is critical for nonprofits to understand the capital sources available to them and the drivers for accessing capital. Most nonprofits have figured out the basics of where financial resources come from, primarily: a) grants and contracts, b) donations, and/or c) earned income. However, as an advanced understanding, nonprofits would do well to study the subspecies of philanthropy. While texts referenced above offer clear outlines as to different funding vehicles, as recently as last week, philanthropists and advisors (Update 10/21/12 the link to this discussion no longer exists). While the difference between a heartfelt connector and a venture philanthropist may seem a bit esoteric in reading the back and forth of a blogger and respondents, an understanding of the different values and motivations attached to philanthropy will assist the savvy nonprofit in aligning their capital needs with the right markets.

Create a Resource Development Plan: I would argue, that only in the context of understanding your capital needs (and the capital “markets”), can a truly useful resource development plan can be created. In other words, it is only as an agency strategically “buckets” and “stages” their capital needs can they begin to create an investment plan. From that strategic vantage point, a nonprofit can then intelligently have a conversation with potential investor/donors who have been matched by their motivation and strategic philanthropic intent.

I have worked with many organizations where the starting point for revenue development planning is next year’s budget. However, a “seeking support for programs” approach to resource development is an increasingly unreliable way to raise revenues that support the financial stability of a nonprofit. As I have been arguing in my recent posts, strategy is increasingly important to nonprofit agencies. Strategic planning needs to include strategic resource development planning as well. By aligning nonprofit strategic planning with impact philanthropy planning, there is the potential to create more rational and sustainable funding models for nonprofit organizations.

As always, your comments are welcome.





Photo Credit: Steve Buissinne

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.