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Why trends matter to nonprofits

Just five years ago, the trendiest mall stores were pulling in almost $4 billion a year. Today, these same stores are closing locations, filing for Chapter 11, or on the brink.  Even the mall Santa is nearly obsolete – as I learned this past Christmas, the traditional wait-an-hour-for-a-grainy-8x10 routine is being replaced by warehouse-sized Santalands, complete with interactive stations for kids and a bar for mom and dad. (They had my son-in-law at “craft beer.”)

So what happened? They didn’t adapt.  

At the current, furious rate of change, every business must be adaptable – including nonprofits. New solutions are sweeping the sector in response to converging challenges like the continuing erosion of government funding, mass retirement, technology access issues, and regulatory shifts. California has created state-owned foundations to circumvent changes in the federal tax code; agencies in Pennsylvania are using centralized information-sharing to serve families rapidly and completely; and Georgia agencies are following suit, with similar initiatives underway.

Other innovations are more routine, but no less impactful: increased outsourcing in areas like HR, finance, administration, and even development; limiting overhead by selling properties and renting back space; new management constructs lowering costs; and data-informed, technology-powered approaches to collaboration and campaigning.

Adaptation isn’t simple, but there are foundational techniques you can use to guide your organization through it. Here are three:

1. Know your purpose.

As trendy clothing stores learned, consumers today don’t want oversized logos or an appeal to the coolest and best-looking among us: They want companies that align with, and act upon, their customers’ values. Consider CVS: Their decision to stop selling tobacco products lost them millions in revenue, but netted them the loyalty of customers, who know they can trust CVS’s stated purpose: helping people live healthier lives.

Nonprofits should be especially mindful of ensuring that purpose is front and center in all decision-making. One way to approach this is with a simple test to screen major decisions for mission fit. This could be as simple as asking, “Will this decision serve our specific mission and goals?”

When all decisions are driven by your purpose – not your bottom line, and certainly not any one process, program, or individual – you’re ready to navigate change.

So, is your nonprofit living out its mission in every way possible? Take communications: When you reach out, is it only to appeal for money, or are you equipping stakeholders to take action socially and politically? Are speaking to the entire world, or those who care deeply about your mandate and values? When someone encounters your brand online or in-person, do they wind up connected with your mission, or confused about it?

2. Connect with stakeholders where they are.

The power to connect is as close as your cell phone: increasingly, that is where all of your stakeholders can be found. That immediate access, combined with emerging technology, makes the possibilities for adaptation endless. For example, if you can use social media to reach your stakeholders directly, why not include them in your decision-making process? Imagine what nonprofits might accomplish if we asked our dedicated followers for their ideas, and collaborated with them in real time while crafting solutions – every comment, from clients to donors, is an opportunity to innovate and adapt. We’ve also seen social media used to collect public input about park improvements, provide text-based updates in disasters, and raise money (using new techniques such as Like2Buy on Instagram).

Whether it’s used for service provision, data collection, engagement, or any other area, the key idea is to connect with stakeholders where their attention is already trained — and today, with ever more frequency, it’s their mobile devices.

3. Listen to feedback.

Businesses that spent the 80s and 90s homogenizing consumer experiences – big-box stores, fast-food franchises, movie studios and television networks – have scrambled to keep up with services like Netflix, Amazon, and Pinterest, which continuously personalize your experience based on what they learn about you.

This is not just a matter of changing taste. Personalizing services makes them more effective: quickening the pace of delivery, sustaining progress, and better maintaining engagement. Nonprofits can adopt this type of continuous feedback loop to tailor services for improved results. For example, some nonprofits use simple polling software to get instant feedback on the care they deliver daily to seniors – leaders can respond quickly, activating staff to implement changes based on a stakeholder’s latest needs or a trend you’ve spotted in the feedback.

Harnessing feedback involves getting comfortable with capturing and analyzing data beyond the requirements for a grant or annual report. For example, one new nonprofit-led initiative has launched a system to collect and share feedback about donors and their processes, providing transparent feedback from grantees to improve communication or refine processes.

By authentically delivering on the purpose, engaging audiences where they are, and embracing feedback, leaders can make tough decisions early, and find what works more quickly.

Here at GCN, we have recently completed a listening tour comprised of hundreds of interviews, along with a compilation of recent research and data. Over the next year, we’ll be bringing you, our stakeholders, the data we’ve collected on the changes facing the sector. As always, our objective is to ensure that Georgia’s nonprofit sector is sustainable and effective. We look forward to engaging you in the coming year, and creating solutions with you that help navigate change and strengthen us all.

Karen Beavor
President and CEO
Georgia Center for Nonprofits



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