How can nonprofits plan for growth and impact?

This post was written by Rohit Menezes on behalf of the Case Foundation:

Growing or scaling an organization and its impact in any sector is hard. All leaders face the day-to-day challenge of operations – what one of my heroes has called “the constant grind to get folk to do what they agreed to do.”

In the nonprofit sector, this challenge is compounded by scarce resources and an incomplete understanding of what works. In this context, simply thinking about growth is difficult, and planning for growth can feel like an indulgence.

In my experience, however, planning is a vital element of effectively scaling an organization and its impact. For nonprofits, there are many ways to learn about planning for scale including resources available at The Bridgespan Group’s website. In this same spirit, I want to share some practices I have noted of organizations that have scaled successfully as fuel for dialogue. They are:

  • Focusing on critical relationships
  • Embracing opportunism
  • Thinking exponentially

Focusing on critical relationships.

Fundamentally, you grow a business at the rate you are able to grow relationships. In the for profit world, customer relationships are paramount. In the nonprofit sector, relationships with funders, stakeholders, and political champions can make the difference for organizations. To grow effectively, organizations must “planfully” scale those relationships. In some cases, this means developing even more relationships. In others it means upgrading existing relationships to get the kind of engagement you need. Either way, it requires recognizing that relationships are critical catalysts for scaling and impact. Developing board members and re-developing the composition of a board over time creates ferment for growing a broader set of relationships – an approach taken by many organizations. At the same time, most organizations need to be even more focused on external stakeholder relationships.

One local affiliate of a national network in Texas took this challenge very seriously. Its funding historically had come mostly from special events, so it pushed to diversify its revenue sources through the cultivation of state government funders. But it encountered a problem: the organization’s leadership did not have any relationships in the state capital. To connect itself more purposefully to government funders, the affiliate actively recruited board members with the right relationships, including the former chairman of a critical state agency. It also created a position called honorary state chairman, which rotates bi-annually to a new appointee. A succession of powerful policymakers has held the position, including the attorney general and a U.S. senator, helping to contribute to a dramatic increase in government funding.

Embracing opportunism.

Sometimes growth and scale come not from formal planning, but from flexibly identifying and responding to the right opportunities. An organization’s ability to respond to opportunities is shaped by many factors – including decision-making processes and IT infrastructure. Advance thinking and planning around goals, and the ways and means of achieving them, can allow an organization to contextualize opportunities, respond swiftly and appropriately to the unanticipated, and be “strategically opportunistic.”

Thinking exponentially.

Scaling impact is about more than replication. At Bridgespan, we have been asking the question: how do you get 100x impact with just 2x the organization? To answer this question, leaders need to think creatively about leverage – from the use of technology, to scaling leadership or sharing knowledge, that create a true ripple effect. Think advocacy, or new technology such as social networking. I increasingly hear clients and others speak of “starting a movement” as opposed to providing “just” direct service. Bridgespan’s managing partner Jeff Bradach wrote of this in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in June describing among other examples KaBOOM!, which helps communities build new playgrounds for children. In its first 10 years, KaBOOM! built nearly 750 playgrounds. But its reach was partly limited by the number of staff it could deploy to each site. Then KaBOOM! shifted from hands-on management to a Web-based platform that helps communities organize their projects. The result: approximately 4,000 more playgrounds in just three years.
But these are just three observations from my experience about scaling. What are yours?

Guest blogger Rohit Menezes works with the Bridgespan Group, where his recent client work and research has focused on youth development and place-based initiatives.

Charity athletic events: They hurt so good

This post was written by Nicola Beddow on behalf of the Case Foundation:

When it comes to raising funds and awareness for a good cause, some of the most popular events are ones that involve a little blood, sweat and tears. Marathons, distance biking, and run/walks top the list of charity athletic events. As co-founder and director of the Race for Hope 5k Run/Walk, I frequently get calls and requests for advice on organizing run/walks. I’m always happy to share experiences, resources and new fundraising ideas.

People are attracted to athletic fundraising events for many reasons – supporting a cause, getting in shape, accomplishing a goal and maybe even for the rewards that come from pain and suffering. In fact, Princeton University researchers Christopher Olivola and Eldar Shafir conducted a study at The Oppenheimer Lab that suggests people like to participate in fundraising activities that involve discomfort. Mr. Olivola attributed the results of the study to a phenomenon he dubbed the “martyrdom effect.” “When you have to work hard and suffer for a cause, then you become more involved and more motivated to help that cause,” he said. That could explain the appeal of charity triathlons, marathons and the latest craze: running up the stairwells of skyscrapers.

Fortunately, there are plenty of events for people at all fitness levels. The Race for Hope – DC, presented by Cassidy & Pinkard Colliers – a run/walk to benefit Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure and the National Brain Tumor Society draws over 8,000 participants, including many families. It’s inclusive – just about anyone can run or walk a 5k. The “martyrdom effect” can be seen at this level too. I often hear Race participants say “running or walking” is the least they can do in support of a loved one who has been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Charity athletic events are growing in participation and dollars raised. According to the Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council, the top thirty “athon” programs generated more than $1.76 billion in gross revenue for charity last year, up from $1.64 billion in 2007 – a healthy 7.6% increase.

Here’s a look at the top five events from the Councils’ recent Run Walk Ride Thirty Study:

  • $430.0 million…(+5.9%)…Relay for Life…American Cancer Society
  • $125.5 million…(+0.4%…Team in Training…Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
  • $115.0 million…(-0.9%)…March for Babies…March of Dimes
  • $113.1 million…(+19.8%)…Race for the Cure…Susan G. Komen for the Cure
  • $110.0 million…(+26.5%)…Breast Cancer 3-Day…National Philanthropic Trust

Of course, program executives who responded to the study expressed concern about the economy this year. They hoped to use two strategies to drive growth: increased corporate team recruitment followed by providing individual participants with tools to raise more funds.

Key elements to a successful race include: a passion for the cause, a core group of talented and committed volunteers, and online fundraising and awareness building tools.

Volunteers with experience in media outreach, sponsorships and team building will be critical to your success. No one can tell a story, land a sponsorship or build a team better than someone who has been personally impacted by the cause.

Hire a running company to handle permitting, logistics and timing.

Make sure you have an online fundraising strategy. Some nonprofits use online fundraising software like Blackbaud/Kintera or Convio, while others build their own custom websites. Sites like or enable individuals to raise money for their special cause as they participate in an athletic event not directly connected to a charity. Social media tools are extending the reach of athletic event fundraising, as well. Nonprofits and individuals have set up Facebook Fan pages and Twitter accounts to help spread the word about their run or walk. See how we’ve used these tools for Race for Hope:

A new and welcome trend is the “greening” of athletic fundraising events. The running community is leading the way. While it takes extra effort and the costs are not cheap, there are considerable environmental benefits. Races are recruiting additional volunteers to help manage the recycling of thousands of plastic water bottles, containers and paper cups. They are featuring organic t-shirts, bio-degradable bib numbers and compost bins for banana and orange peels. Race directors are cutting back on printed race materials and encouraging participants to go online for information and registration.

It’s never been a better time to get fit, go green and support your favorite charity!

Here’s some great resources links:

Guest blogger Nicola (Nike) Beddow is the Director of Events at Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure (ABC2), a Case Foundation partner organization.