VISION – that not-for-profit organizations be recognized and valued as institutions that add color, distinction, and strength to the fabric of America.
Not-for-profit Institutions as Part of 21st Century Life
Words like relevance, sustainability, and viability have been around a long time, and like all words, their meaning changes as they are applied. These words, and the definitions they conjure up in our minds, have taken on new meaning and significance over the past two decades. And, in doing so, require re-defining and explanation as we and they change.
Saying a museum is relevant, for instance, begs the question “Relevant to what?” Ideally, its leaders and advocates can argue favorably that their art, cultural or social institution enhances life as we know it today, and will tomorrow, by proving how it clarifies our past, adds perspective to our present, and shapes our future.
Sustainability can be defined using many terms. Environmental sustainability is the concept de jour, but one that we would be wise to add to our lexicon. So too, is economic sustainability; meaning keeping enough money coming in to keep us alive and well.
Less universally recognized are the intellectual’s and scholar’s points of view that the educational capital an institution holds is reason enough to maintain its property in perpetuity. A respected point of view, of course, but not one that’s likely to win over proponents of economic and social progress. Growth advocates might argue that antiques, artifacts, and historical collections can be stored in less prominent locations in order to give a community growing room. So, while sustainability speaks to safe keeping of the natural environment, and increasingly about the bottom line, it must also successfully defend the position that our museums belong on Main Street’s prime real estate and not on the side streets of our communities.
In this order of words, that leaves viability supported by the two legs of relevance and sustainability. Assuming a not-for-profit (museum or otherwise) can be savvy enough to remain meaningful over years, without changing so much that its meaning is distorted or contrived, it must still prove how viable (or sensible) it is to keep the institution alive. It might be “green”; it might even be economically solvent. But is it worth the time to keep it going? And whose time is it worth? Return on Investment (ROI) in the long term is a far different thing to maintain than ROI on a one-year marketing campaign.
When the special events are over, the general membership drives are complete, and it’s time to begin putting next year’s operational budget on paper, the bottom line is … the bottom line! You’ve bragged about how relevant you are, how sustainable you’ve become, and how viable your institution is; now you have to prove it. It’s time to walk-the-walk as well as talk-the-talk.
This is where not-for-profits generally falter. They must ask themselves “How will we carry out each of our promises to support our vision and move our mission forward by meeting the goals and objectives we’ve so proudly and publicly said we’ve established? This is where rhetoric meets reality and enthusiasm meets economics.
All businesses rely upon external help and advice. Going it alone in the complex and dynamic world we live in is organizational suicide. While no institution, not-for-profit or otherwise, should ever abdicate its responsibility to lead to outsiders, knowing who and when to call are essential to remaining alive. Whether it’s the accountant or the plumber, an architect or the independent consultant, enlisting someone besides the board, director, staff, or volunteers gets you the benefit of skills, knowledge, abilities, and other characteristics you don’t otherwise have.
Swampside Consulting was started after years of accumulating community service hours, volunteering in not-for-profits, serving on boards of trustees, being a museum director, and having taught not-for-profit administration and management at the graduate level. These experiences, on top of writing grants, helping to develop governance policies and practices, and advising many others have created a love of not-for-profit that’s in our DNA. We don’t do it because we feel we have all the answers. We do it because we think we’ve been around long enough to have something to offer others.
What we want most of all is the opportunity to support you and move your mission along. If you think we can help, contact us, and let’s talk. We may be able to help by simply pointing you in the right direction, or maybe by helping you choose your direction, and reach your next destination.
All the best in making your not-for-profit a relevant, sustainable, and viable institution that serves others in whatever way you’ve chosen to make this a better place to live.
Michael & Pamela Flinton
Galway NY 12074