The Donors Forum and goodWORKSconnect.org hosted the 2011 Illinois Nonprofit Conference, Vital Signs, this week in Springfield, Illinois. Nonprofit leaders from throughout the state gathered to gain knowledge they could take back to their nonprofits, as we weather the current economic conditions.
Why is this important?
Nonprofits are 9% of the state workforce and 10% of gross state product in Illinois. So, yeah… it is important that Illinois nonprofits come together to exchange best practices, gain new knowledge and discover innovative ways to not only survive, but thrive, in the current economic climate.
At the opening conference session, Steven Zimmerman with Spectrum Nonprofit Services encouraged nonprofits to focus on developing strategies to achieve sustainability. Steven noted it was important for nonprofits to achieve sustainability because as nonprofit professionals, “our work is important to individuals we know, our communities, and people we may never meet.”
To achieve sustainability, Steven noted that it is important to focus on both programmatic sustainability and financial sustainability. He defined program sustainability as understanding the needs of your constituents and the strengths of your organization. Then, designing programs and services that meet both of those. Steven urged nonprofits to ask themselves two questions: Are we truly having an impact? Are we meeting the needs of our constituents? When you can answer “yes” to both questions, you have reached program sustainability.
Financial stability is also key, but not necessarily the way you may think. It used to be that nonprofits that had diverse revenue streams were considered financially stable, but Steven said there is no factual proof that is true. Instead of relying on that, nonprofits must look at expenses and the cost structure for each program, and embrace the concept of true costs associated with those programs. When nonprofits know the true costs of operating their programs (including direct, shared and administrative), then they can examine them to see if program lines are actually profitable. Steven isn’t saying that all programs nonprofits provide need to be profitable, but if nothing is profitable… your nonprofit won’t be around long!
New Leadership for a New Nonprofit Sector
The closing conference speaker was Rosetta Thurman with Thurman Consulting. She reminded all of us in the room that there will never be enough money for our programs and we must deal with the “new normal,” as most nonprofits are negatively impacted by the recession. This takes a new type of leadership.
Rosetta highlighted four types of leaders in the nonprofit sector. First, there are the “True Believers” who believe in what you do and would do anything you ask. Nonprofits often ask people to only do the minimum, but Rosetta challenged us to ask the “True Believers” to do the maximum and do something truly meaningful to support the mission of the organization. Secondly, there are the “Ruthless Innovators” who are the people that ALWAYS have a new idea. Instead of saying no to their ideas, Rosetta proposed we say yes to exploring the ideas. Have them look into their idea and present more information on it, don’t just jump up and say no. Third, there are the “Ambassadors of Diversity” who always ask if everyone has given their input. They always want to hear all the different ideas and opinions. As nonprofit leaders we should stop telling everyone how to do everything and welcome some diverse ideas. Finally, there are the “Courageous Advocates.” These leaders want to do big things, make big changes and make a big splash. Nonprofits often get nervous and don’t want to be too risky, but Rosetta challenged us to be bold and brave and give these leaders a chance to make a difference.
Beyond the insights from Steven and Rosetta, the conference covered topics ranging from dashboards to social media and evaluation to fundraising. Illinois nonprofits were able to come together and build a sense of community as we strive to fulfill our missions during these challenging economic times. There is a vital need for Illinois nonprofits to succeed in the work we do, our work is too important to not succeed.
If you attended the Vital Signs conference, what are the take-aways you brought back to your organization?