When I am in South Africa (like I am now) I stay in a house built by a guy who loved DIY (do it yourself) projects, we’ll call him Tom. Tom drew up the plans, helped with the construction of the house and even did the electrical himself, despite not being the best man for the job.

Since there is no municipal line to pump water up to the house, he set up his roof for rainwater collection. Tom also came up with a plan to keep one massive water tank underneath the house to avoid the usual un-slightly green rainwater tanks from obstructing his view of the surrounding natural landscape. A plan I’m sure he thought was very clever.

He created a large, concrete, basement under the garage and painted the floors and walls with a sealant. Then, he hooked the rainwater collection up to drain into that basement. From there the collected rainwater got pumped to the rest of the house. The idea being that this large sealed room would hold all the water for the house.

This was great in theory! He could store loads of water without a single green tank in view!

The problem is that he failed to take into consideration the composition of earth at the building site: heavy clay. The ground has inevitably shifted over time.  As a result, the basement tank shifted under the weight of 100,000 liters of rainwater and cracks formed in the foundation, breaking the sealant. Water began to drain (nay, hemorrhage) out from the underground tank and into the foundation under the garage, creating more instability.

Now, cracks are forming in the garage where we (used to) park cars and we have no idea what to do! In reality, the best thing would be to tear the whole half of the house down, backfill the cavernous maw that is the failed underground water tank with cement or soil, and rebuild the foundations. This would be so much easier if Tom had done his due diligence, hired experienced builders and contractors, and actually built his garage and water tank on a solidly strong foundation. Or made a water collection system more appropriate to a clay soil environment. Instead, I now have to contend with raging underground river that continually chips away at the remaining foundation of a tank that wasn’t properly installed.


A Strong Foundation

I tell this story because, like the garage basement tank, a nonprofit will experience problems when built on a weak foundation.

A strong foundation and framework cannot be overstated when it comes to building a nonprofit. If my house were to collapse into the ridiculous water tank, it may be very startling, but insurance would cover damages. When a nonprofit fails, it can be catastrophic to the community it serves. It may leave behind now jobless employees and individuals, people/animals/beneficiaries relying on your support and resources.

By starting with a strong framework and foundation, a nonprofit can become whatever the community needs it to be! If the foundation in my garage was solid, we could put anything we wanted over the water tank (more water tanks, cars, even a workshop!) but, because the foundation is not solid, I don’t trust it to hold anything over the coming years. One good rain storm and the whole garage may get sucked into a sinkhole. In doing our due diligence for an NPO we can avoid it succumbing to the sinkholes of inefficiency when we are deluged with community pressures and needs.


Define Your Foundation

So what does a strong nonprofit foundation look like? One of the best ways to ensure a strong foundation is to write everything about the nonprofit out. You need to put the time in up front to clarify what the NPO does, how it does it and why it does it. Writing it out makes it clear to current staff what the NPO is about but also to anyone who joins later.

What should you write out?

  • Mission
  • Goals
  • Objectives
  • Job descriptions for every single distinct position (for staff, volunteers and board members)
  • Policies (donations, social media, privacy of beneficiaries, record keeping, etc)
  • Contingency plans (what if the Executive Director got hit by a bus on the way home? Would someone be able to pick up right where they were and keep the NPO going?)
  • How you measure success in the NPO – this is going to look different for everyone.

Yes, this is a lot to write down. But, if it is written down, it means that these important foundational items are considered, discussed, and agreed upon. If there is a question about what is appropriate, you can point to a written policy. If a foundation accuses you of mismanaging a grant, you can show them your budgets and track the donation. If a donor wants to put weird conditions on a gift, you can tell them “we cannot accept this gift because our donation policy says X.”

What if you have not written this out beforehand? If there are no policies to let someone know what is appropriate, how will they know? How can you reprimand someone if there are no rules? How can you prevent a volunteer from disclosing your beneficiaries personal information on social media if there are no written policies about social media or the appropriate behavior of volunteer? If you don’t have a policy for tracking funds, you will have a hard time getting a grant, let alone managing it. You may also find you spend more time trying to meet weird gift conditions than they are worth if you can’t say no to them.


Learn From The Experts

My other bit of advice is to make sure you have a clear understanding of how nonprofits should and shouldn’t function. Tom didn’t know how to build a house. He pieced it together off of the internet and random hobbies. He didn’t understand how to build a strong foundation for a garage or an underground water reservoir. As a result, I am dealing with the fall out of his poor planning and decisions. If he had used experts and listened to their advice instead of piecing together a Frankenstines house of hobbies, I could actually use my garage.

Remember that a nonprofit needs to outlast its founders and its staff. Setting up a strong foundation ensures a strong organization now and in the future.

Make sure you are always learning ways to run a better nonprofit. Take classes, read books, attend webinars, join nonprofit communities, or hire a consultant. Make sure you are staying ahead of the game and understand how to run a business (since that is what a nonprofit is.)

There are a lot of in-person seminars all across the world and more books than I can count for nonprofit professionals. If you want the best of both worlds, you could check out NPO.lib. NPO.lib is a new online resource that allows you to do all of the above and more. For the price of a three-hour live training seminar, you get access to the growing library of:

  • on demand courses
  • downloadable resources and templates
  • an online professional community
  • webinars, group mastermind, and member hangout calls
  • member-only discounts and perks
  • and access to a nonprofit consultant with 10 years of experience

There are lots of ways to learn and you know which way works best for you. As long as you are learning and staying knowledgeable, I, as well as your beneficiaries, will be happy!

In the spirit of the new year, let us know what you are resolving to do in 2018 to improve the foundation of the nonprofit you serve. Do you plan on taking some classes? Read a book or two? Hire a consultant? Let us know in the free NPO.lib Nonprofit Professional Community Facebook group!

Build Your Donor List, No Matter Where You Are In The Process

Brandon Reed

Founder at Reed Community Consulting and NPO.lib

Brandon helps people help other people. He has over 10 years experience working with small and medium-sized nonprofits in two countries in many different sectors. He has worked at all levels of organization from entry-level service delivery up to the executive director and board president. This experience affords him insight for whole level management of an organization, which he transfers to his clients. In his free time, he likes to play volleyball and spend time gardening with his wife and dog.
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