• Steve Glavan

Taking Your Nonprofit’s Temperature


While visiting our home a few weeks ago my four year old grandson came down with a virus. He was running a fairly high fever, so my wife and I monitored him closely. We were concerned that if he did not improve quickly we might need to take him to the doctor. Fortunately, his fever soon began to come down, and when it reached 100 degrees he got very excited, announcing, “I got a hundred! I got a hundred on my temperature!”

Apparently, once you’re in school – even preschool – getting 100 on any test is a big deal.

As I considered my grandson’s situation a few thoughts came to mind about some of the nonprofit organizations I’ve worked with:

Stop and take your temperature . . .

My grandson often resists putting the thermometer in his mouth because he knows that if his temperature is a bit high he may have to take a dose of medicine that he doesn’t particularly like. It’s as if he thinks that avoiding the reality will make it go away.

We sometimes react the same way in our organizations, avoiding indicators that measure our health and let us know what steps to take to address problems. On any given day a variety of issues can take you away from your to-do list. Over time, those issues can begin to pull your attention so far away from priorities that you begin to feel that you are no longer even pursuing your mission or vision. It’s good to stop and simply take the temperature of your organization. Your thermometer includes your goals, priorities, strategic plan, case for support, assessment of staff, board and other volunteers, and anything else that keeps you focused on mission and moving forward toward your vision. You may not think you have time to stop and check your temperature, and it can be uncomfortable to admit that you need to take the medicine that will get you back on track, but denial and avoidance will only increase the severity of the problems and make it even more difficult for your organization to get – and stay – healthy.

A score of 100 doesn’t always mean you are healthy . . .

Even though my grandson was thrilled with his “score,” he still had a ways to go to really be healthy. We needed to continue monitoring his progress to be certain that he was getting better, and to decide if a call to the doctor would be necessary.

Don’t be fooled by numbers that don’t tell the whole story. The development staff of one organization was thrilled when their cultivation efforts brought in several new donors in a relatively short period of time. But an analysis of their donor database showed that many current donors had failed to renew their commitment in the past year, resulting in a net revenue loss of thousands of dollars. Bringing in new donors is important, but not at the expense of losing existing donors due to a lack of stewardship. Your goals will only be effective if they reflect the true state of your plans and priorities, with realistic and measurable checkpoints. Your strategic plans must be relevant. Your case for support should be current and appealing to donors and prospects. Your staff and board of directors need to have the skills and commitment to support your plans and goals. And you need to know when the counsel of an outside professional can bring a new and necessary perspective to your organization.

It’s good to celebrate the small victories . . .

Even though taking your temperature may show that you still have a ways to go, it’s important to celebrate when things are headed in the right direction. My grandson’s reaction provided him with a boost of energy and motivated him to keep drinking fluids and taking his medicine so he could be completely healthy. In your organization you need to take time to acknowledge the work being done by staff and volunteers. Get excited when the thermometer is headed in the right direction. Use the moments when something positive happens to say “job well done” and encourage your team to keep up the good work. Revisit goals regularly so people can see progress, and let everyone have a voice in sharing victories and ideas that will continue moving things in the right direction.

Setting the right goals is vital in maintaining the health of any organization, but checking those goals and making corrections along the way is equally important. Avoidance won’t address the issues, and ignorance is never a good excuse. Take your temperature regularly to get a good baseline and to identify potential issues before they become major problems that may be difficult, time-consuming, and costly to fix. Seek help when you need it, both internally and externally, to get – and stay – healthy.

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