• Steve Glavan

Balancing The Three-Legged Stool

I once watched a circus performer walk out onto the tightrope carrying a stool. When he reached the midway point, he set the stool down on two of its legs, found a balance

point, and then slowly lowered himself into a seated position, balancing precariously on the seat of the stool. After a few moments he carefully stepped back onto the wire; then, he dramatically and carefully re-balanced the stool with only one leg on the tightrope, and once again lowered himself to sit on the stool, managing to hold himself upright for several seconds before stepping back onto the wire and returning to the platform with a flourish. When the show ended, several of the performers were outside greeting fans. As I walked by I noticed the tightrope walker sitting at a table and signing autographs – ironically, sitting on a three-legged stool exactly like the one he had balanced on during his routine; only now, it sat firmly on the ground, on all three legs.

While circus acrobatics are intriguing to watch, few of us would be comfortable or confident balancing on only one or two legs of a stool. In fact, the metaphor of the three-legged stool is often used in models to describe financial or management principles that require a balanced approach. And so it is with the work that we do at Sapience Nonprofit Solutions. Our approach to nonprofit success and sustainability is based on three key elements, all of which must be present and effective to maintain balance in your organization, and success in pursuing and achieving your mission.


The first leg of the stool is fundraising. That is almost a no-brainer. Every nonprofit organization recognizes that they need to raise money to operate and to cover the costs associated with their programs. However, many nonprofits do not have a diversified fundraising approach. They may be relying heavily on events, grants, or direct mail without a clear understanding of the return on their investment, and without an effective process for cultivating, soliciting, and retaining individual donors – let alone implementing major donor and planned giving programs. For nonprofits considering special situations, such as a capital campaign, how do they apply resources to a new program that may be time-consuming without sacrificing the annual fundraising dollars that are typically their bread and butter? Having a realistic, well managed fundraising program is necessary to keep your organization from toppling.

Strategic Planning

But fundraising alone is not sustainable without a plan. I frequently encounter people who are reluctant to invest too much time in making plans. The argument I hear most often is that nonprofit leaders don’t want to be restricted by a plan, but prefer flexibility as circumstances change. They’re correct – to a point. A good plan doesn’t control you – you control it! A plan provides a course to follow and should always be adaptable as circumstances change. Strategic plans typically include elements that provide every member of the nonprofit’s team, staff and volunteer, with a clear picture of mission, vision, goals, procedures, and schedules. A complete planning process covers the organization as a whole, as well as fundraising and marketing strategies. It also includes structuring the organization’s case for support, the outward-looking document that shares your mission and needs with doors and prospective supporters. Even if you have a strategic plan and case for support in place, it’s important to keep them updated and relevant. We recommend an annual review of all plans and supporting documents, with regular check-ins throughout the year to make sure strategies, priorities, and messaging remain current and relevant.

Board Development

Fundraising and strategic planning cannot stand alone (try balancing that stool on two legs). In order to support and implement your fundraising programs and strategies, you must have a board that is engaged. Engagement means that your board is actively involved in both the planning and implementation of programs and strategies. Some questions to ask yourself: Do you have a board recruitment and orientation process? Do board members have defined terms and term limits? Do board members understand their role as fundraisers, and how to exercise that role? Do you have the right people on your board, and in the right roles as officers and committee members? Does your board represent the culture of your organization? Are board members able to comfortably and confidently represent your organization to your constituents and the public at large? We urge organizations to make sure their boards are well positioned to actively support the fundraising and planning processes by providing regular training and education. Every organization should schedule a board and executive retreat annually, using the time to instruct and develop board members and key staff. It is also important to keep your plans and goals in front of your board as part of each regularly scheduled board meeting, encouraging interaction and feedback.

Like that circus performer from long ago, you can only balance on one or two legs for a limited amount of time. To be sustainable, your organization must have all three legs of the stool firmly planted and secure. Sapience Nonprofit Solutions has the expertise and understanding to help organizations like yours be sustainable and successful, able to fulfill your mission now and for years to come. I invite you to contact us to learn more.

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