Updated: Jul 31, 2018

Last week I shared how changes to federal tax laws have caused uncertainty and confusion for some nonprofits, and how staying true to basic principles, such as relationship building, can keep your organization on the right track. This week I want to talk about the need to be relevant.

The story goes like this: A family gathers for their annual holiday dinner. Mom decides that her daughter is old enough to help with the cooking and brings her into the kitchen, just as her own mother did many years ago. Mom walks through her methods for preparing the traditional menu, and when the time comes to cook the ham she shows her daughter how to cut both ends off before placing the ham in the roasting pan. “Why do we have to cut the ends off the ham before we cook it?” asks the curious daughter. “Well,” answers the mom, “That is how Grandma taught me to cook ham. Let’s ask her.” Mother and daughter turn to grandma, who is slicing vegetables a few feet away, and ask her why they cut the end off of the ham. “Well,” replies the grandma, “That is how my mother taught me to cook ham. Let’s ask her.” The trio walks to the living room, where great-grandmother sits in a rocking chair. “Great-grandma,” asks the little girl, “Why do we cut the ends off of the ham before we cook it?” “Well,” answers great-grandma, “When my daughter was growing up, the only roasting pan I had wasn’t large enough for the ham, so we had to cut off the ends to make it fit.”

We may laugh at the story, but we have probably all found ourselves in situations where we continue to carry out a practice in a certain way because that is how we were trained, and we never question the relevance of the process or practice. In some cases, we are reluctant to change a process simply because “we’ve always done it that way.” Let’s admit it – change can be difficult and uncomfortable. We like the familiar; we fear the unknown; perhaps most of all, we think changing our methods will mean changing our identity. But change doesn’t need to be drastic, and it should never cause us to be someone or something we are not. Change can and should, however, provide an opportunity for increased awareness and response to the world around us – not to be reactive, but to be proactive. Retired U.S. Army General and former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki is quoted as saying, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

Just like tax laws and roasting pans, times change. What was relevant to your constituents a few years ago may seem out of step with current conditions now. Donors don’t just want to know that your organization is making an impact, they also want to know how that impact is being made, that your methods are both effective and cost effective, and whether your mission and processes are staying up to date with changes that may be affecting the issues you are addressing. You also cannot continue to use the same methods for reaching your donors that you used in the past. Mailers, newsletters, and events still have their place, but if you are not utilizing avenues such as social media, video, and strategic one-on-one meetings with key donors and prospects you will eventually lose your audience.

Principles of business and fundraising don’t change. Relationships will always be a lynchpin for nonprofit success, as will fiscal responsibility, communication, management, board development, staff training, and so forth. However, a willingness to consider and adopt current methods can lead to improved efficiency and effectiveness, and keep your organization connected to the people and institutions that can be your greatest champions. Don’t allow yourself to be blinded by fear or unyielding due to stubbornness – be relevant.

Next Week – Part 3: Run for the Prize

Steve Glavan is the owner of Sapience Nonprofit Solutions, a California based consulting firm providing fundraising and strategic consulting services to nonprofit organizations. He is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and serves on the board of the Tri-Valley Nonprofit Alliance. Steve holds the coveted Certified Fund Raising Professional (CFRE) designation.

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