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VOL. 126 | NO. 240 | Friday, December 9, 2011

Pearl and Mel Shaw

Be Brave, Ask Questions

By Mel and Pearl Shaw

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Editor’s note: Part two in a two-part series. Sometimes the questions we don’t ask are the ones that lead us astray. In part one of this series, we discussed how today’s changing – and challenging – economic times can be a catalyst for nonprofits if we are brave enough to ask questions we might prefer to run from. Here are a few.

“How can we operate more efficiently?” For example, as a community of nonprofits, can we decrease operating costs by using one resource for payroll, purchasing, insurance (health and liability) and even accounting?

Lawyers would need to be involved; computer systems set up and tested. But at the end of the day, this could increase efficiency and resources devoted to service delivery. Or maybe not. You won’t know until you ask. Asking the question and having the conversation could lead to new approaches.

Another question is, “What can we do differently?” One organization we know provided residential services for the most vulnerable children in their community. They had their own campus with new buildings. They received public funds, ran their own school, and provided housing, counseling and more.

But changes in public policy and changes in best practices caused them to change how they operate. They looked at the funding landscape – and the children’s needs – and changed their service delivery model. They have closed their residential campus and expanded their community- and school-based services. They could have continued to raise funds for their residential program. Instead they had the foresight to ask, “Where is the market headed?” and were able to adjust course.

We don’t know the questions you need to ask, but we encourage you to think outside the box. Put aside preconceived notions of what success looks like. Remember, as nonprofits, our mission is the public good and that changes over time. New issues emerge. Populations change. Funding opportunities change as well.

Here are a few questions to spur you on: Would becoming a program of another organization or institution allow us to better focus on what we do best? Are we effectively communicating what we do? Are the services we offer the best way to address community challenges and opportunities? Have we become dependent on one or two revenue sources? Do we leave everything in the hands of our CEO? What would we do if she leaves? Would a change in public policy help reduce the need for our services? If so, should we become involved in public policy? Are we focused on sustaining our organization or eliminating the need for our organization? Do the people we serve believe in our work? What do they want us to do differently? Would they miss us if we were gone?

What are the questions you can ask – and where will they lead your organization and community?

Mel and Pearl Shaw are the owners of Saad & Shaw. They help nonprofit organizations and institutions rethink revenue sources. They are the authors of “How to Solicit a Gift: Turning Prospects into Donors.” Visit them at www.saadandshaw.com or call 522-8727.

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