Getting results vs. making a difference

In Short

Any organization that believes that it is too large, too entrenched or too essential and “too big to fail,” may find surprises as it seeks to engage younger and emerging leaders and donors. 

“That was yesterday; what about today”…or more colloquially “what have you done for me lately?” There are questions that live on the front doorstep of every development professional every day. 

As consultants and development professionals, we enable and empower the organizations that we work with, and their board, volunteers and professional leadership, to contextualize, understand and digest that question and its implications. We help our clients focus simultaneously on what is right in front of us; what is around the next corner; and exactly what needs to be thought of, contemplated, researched, evaluated, adjusted, designed, planned and implemented – and how to implement it together – to achieve an organization’s ultimate goal and every milestone in between. We do that not as an end in itself, but to enable the organization to achieve its mission, ultimately making lives better and meeting the needs and expectations of families and of communities, however defined and constituted.  

We all live and operate today in a hyper-competitive environment with intense, and legitimate, due diligence, including continuous requests for definitions of success, measures of ROI (Returns on Investment) and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and a constant focus on the “bottom line.” It is necessary to make these determinations – to define success in advance – to guide us and our efforts with clarity and purpose. 

Without that clarity and purpose – based on information and fact, the probability of a nonprofit meeting the important local, national and global human and community challenges that it must address today would be severely diminished. But defining success only by the projected number of widgets to be produced is a two-dimensional measurement. To be credible it must be accompanied with a proposition about what those widgets will do, and thus why they deserve to and must be produced here and now. 

In a world of less philanthropic brand loyalty, where a donor is driven by success and there are lowered expectations by the nonprofit of automatic or predictable gift renewal, the importance of a passionate selling proposition or Case for Giving (after all giving is a passionate act) alongside the detailed and credible Business Case (laying out the path of the funds, and ensuring transparency and donor confidence) is truly immeasurable. Without those elements on the leading edge of any organization’s fundraising efforts, achieving success will be far more difficult. 

That is real life today, and it is a good thing. It keeps perspectives fresh; it compels an ongoing and critical view of the philanthropic marketplace to determine trends and directions, and it keeps things competitive. Any organization that believes that it is too large, too entrenched or too essential and “too big to fail,” may find surprises as it seeks to engage younger and emerging leaders and donors. 

We also counsel our clients that a campaign is only 50% about the money; that a building, while crucial and essential to organizational activity and accomplishment, is but a vessel that houses and enables a nonprofit to express a value proposition that frames its ability to succeed. Results are only results, things you can count – widgets, bricks and mortar, rooms and pieces of equipment. Impact, or making a difference in the lives of a family, a community, a country, is the true metric. Yes, results are important because the sum of one’s results, properly messaged and applied, and effectively delivered to its consumers and end users, is the stuff of impact. 

So how do we get there? How can we ensure that we achieve what must occur, and that it actually makes things better? A few thoughts…

  1. Do your Research; Understand the Need for and Nature of Change; Know your Audiences

One cannot assume, especially in today’s environment, that what you see is the full picture, or that it is being viewed objectively. We must make sure that we fully understand the nature of the challenge we are about to undertake and the needs and expectations of the people whom we serve; what change looks like; and the contextual definition of success. Without this we are flying blind and may ultimately lose our way. 

And data should be gathered objectively, by someone who does not stand to gain by the achievement of success and will thus be prepared to speak the truth. Seeking and gathering data in this way, counting what can be quantified and getting the nuance and fine texture of a troubled or challenging situation, will provide a nonprofit with the ability to make clear and forthright decisions, and enable it to effectively communicate the passionate case to donors and funders. 

Let the data speak. Allow it to guide you through your thinking and planning so that it is, driven by best and purest of intentions, intellectually honest and not self-serving. This approach will be appreciated and valued by consumer and funder alike, increase fundraising yield and create the results that will generate the impact we are all looking for.

  1. Be Determined; Dispense with Doctrine; Leave the Conventional Behind

Absorb the information that you have collected and analyzed and, if it supports your objectives and value proposition, find a way – hopefully a bit off the most beaten track – to frame and execute. Don’t seek out the solely conventional path because that path alone too often begets the conventional solution. Meeting today’s challenges and the expectations of end-users and donors means that contemporary solutions – based on a full understanding of the facts, the available resources and the need for change – are and look different. Thus, by achieving those solutions, you are, therefore, actually making a difference. 

  1. Prepare and Live by a Plan

It sounds obvious, but all too many nonprofits and other organizations jump into situations and initiatives without the full knowledge of the pathway, where it begins and ends, how to navigate it, where the pitfalls are, and the human and material resources and assets that will be required to get to the goal. How often do you hear “we are building the plane as we fly it,” as if that is the way of excitement, creativity or innovation. 

We would never guarantee that we can foresee every twist and turn of the road and every unanticipated challenge. And to encounter and navigate the unanticipated, we must remain sufficiently agile to recognize and respond nimbly, and quickly get the effort “back on the rails.” If the set of rails keeps changing, however, each one potentially with a different destination, achieving outcomes will likely be much more difficult, even in doubt, and donors might balk. 

  1. Live Your Vision; Stay Mission-Focused; Be a Leader

You know what you aspire to (Vision); you know what your purpose is, what you are in business for and what people are trusting you to do (Mission). Most of all, you know how to, or who must be brought to the effort to articulate the Vision, and how to bring the Mission to life and marshal the resources to motivate and inspire others to join with you to make things happen. 

The ability to embrace and implement an ambitious yet achievable plan that is clearly understood, transparent in its financial management and honest in its ethical practice, together with the readiness to cross traditional lines and embrace solutions that may be different but still effective, is a key ingredient in the “secret sauce” of leadership, and essential to organizational success. And emerging leaders and donors who see their philanthropic involvement as an investment will more likely respond.

  1. Celebrate and Communicate your Success

Be proud of your accomplishments because through those accomplishments you have made a difference. You haven’t just built a house; you have provided shelter and a home to people who may have had none. You haven’t just built a school; you have given generations of students a place, so that in it, those young people have access and the ability to learn and to find their way in the world. 

Know the potential and the inherent value of your actions. Understand the challenges and what needs to be repaired or advanced, not just what you want to do. Act on knowledge and information; engage with something that you can excel at and is of value to you – something that you know how to do and do well; and organize people around the objectives and be motivated by making a difference, not just getting a result. 

And let others know what you have achieved. Replicating your success in other places, adapted to the needs and expectations of other environments, enhances the value of the achievement. 

We wish you success in the months and years to come…and look forward to staying in touch.  

Avrum Lapin is president at The Lapin Group, LLC, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full-service fundraising, and management consulting firm for leading nonprofits. For a full bio, please visit the TLG website here.