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Excerpt | Dodging Tough Times

publication date: Jul 15, 2020
author/source: George Stanois and Ron Collis

Editor's note: As we seek to navigate 2020, I thought it would be helpful to take a look back at the wisdom gained from the economic downturn in 2008/9 and what advice there was in 2010 about how to recover. This advice holds up today and is as relevant as it was in 2010.

The purpose of this survey was to query Canadian non-profit and charitable organizations on the degree to which they perceived themselves to be sustainable. The main objective was to develop an understanding of how these organizations define sustainability and, based upon their own criteria, the extent to which they consider themselves to be a sustainable organization.

Three of the principles measured in this survey, when combined, are a particularly strong predictor of the respondents’ sustainability ratings. These are:

1. The strategy to cultivate donors for future gifts is having measurable positive results.

2. We have a fully integrated fundraising program where annual, special events, major gifts and planned giving programs effectively work to provide the best possible donor experience.

3. We have a coordinated and active media communications program in place.

Since those participants who agreed that their organizations were sustainable rated all three of these principles highly, we can conclude that an organization that is achieving sustainability employs three fundamental best practices. The first is the framework of a strong fundraising plan. The second is donor stewardship for the purpose of cultivating future donations, and the third is a consistent and effective communications program that highlights the importance of the organization.

On the other hand, since there were a significant number of respondents who graded their organizations on the low end for sustainability when rating these principles, it is important to reflect on the common themes among respondents who commented on why they disagree that their organization meets the three principles noted above. These are:

1. Under-developed plans.

2. Staff and volunteer competency issues.

3. Lack of resources to properly implement plans or programs.

These comments suggest that for many respondents, their organization’s culture does not currently support the key best practices required for sustainability. Overall, it suggests that a culture of negativity and pessimism is prevalent in this sector.

It can be argued that the common issues of under-developed plans and lack of resources stem from the ability of staff and volunteers to effectively implement the best practices associated with a highly sustainable organization as identified in this study. In order to address this issue, there is a necessity at the Board level to provide strong leadership and messaging to staff and volunteers.

Since the framework of a strong fundraising plan is the first of the three best practices associated with sustainable organizations, the required Board leadership should involve ensuring that sufficient time and resources are given for the development of an effective plan, which the Board then supports by making available the resources required for proper implementation.

In today’s climate of intense public scrutiny of the non-profit sector, particularly towards the way in which donor dollars are spent or are perceived to be spent, it is no less than a fundamental responsibility of non- profits to ensure that they have a fundraising plan in place that includes donor stewardship practices.

The impact of a non-profit’s stewardship practices cannot be overemphasized. Stewardship is the key to building trust with donors and supporters. Through methods such as prompt thank-you letters, annual reports, site tours, appreciation events and personal visits, non-profits can truthfully inform external stakeholders about how donors are making a difference today, and how their gifts positively impact the shared long-term goals of both the donor and the non-profit.

A challenge for many Boards in achieving strong leadership, developing an effective plan and applying necessary resources, is that Board Directors are not recruited to raise funds. In this common situation, it is recommended that a Fund Development Committee is formed, consisting of Board members and nonBoard members who take on the fundraising leadership role and act as liaison between staff and Board.

With this peer-to-peer system, the whole Board can be engaged in raising funds for the organization in a way that is meaningful and appropriate for each Director.

It is also recommended that Board and Fund Development Committee members participate in fundraising training. Key training topics include how to build support for your non-profit among your networks, and how to ask for a donation in a face-to-face meeting. Such training addresses the volunteer competency issue and helps to break down psychological barriers to fundraising, making it more accessible to Board Directors.

Without strong leadership and an actionable plan, organizational sustainability will always be a challenge.

A sustained effort to improve leadership and planning should help non-profits and charities to pause, evaluate, and prioritize the necessary steps to move towards sustainability. As more organizations become sustainable, we hope to see a shift towards a more positive culture that is more aptly suited for a sector that is geared towards helping and providing hope.


George Stanois has nurtured The Goldie Company into one of Canada’s leading consulting firms working exclusively with nonprofits. Today, The Goldie Company has offices in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto and is a founding member of Skystone International, an alliance of like-minded fundraising consultancies with offices across Canada and the U.S. The Goldie Company, under George’s outgoing and dynamic management style, has distinguished itself from other consulting firms in the sector for its “people first” approach. But George and his team would be the first to tell you that they draw their inspiration from the people with whom they work, the clients and the volunteers in nonprofit organizations large and small, near and far.

Ron Collis has carried out a wide range of research projects provincially, nationally and internationally. He has conducted projects in market research, business planning, human resources planning, client satisfaction, employee perception, statistical forecasting and polling. His clients have ranged from non-profit organizations, social service agencies, school boards, hospitals, healthcare, to financial regulators, energy and mining companies.

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