Your Ingenious Nonprofit
Karen Eber Davis
My husband and I are about to begin a massive kitchen renovation. So far, we’ve met with four contractors. The first promised us our budget was more than adequate. She talked a lot about what she’d allow us to do before presenting a bid that was 80 percent over our budget. The second contractor came in under our budget but left out critical items, such as the backsplash and floors. After weeks of working to create a full scope of work, we failed to reach a satisfactory agreement. The third offered beautiful cabinets—justifying us exceeding our budget. After we made a design deposit, he refused to let us take home the scope of work to review. He had problems with people stealing his materials in the past. We’ve contracted with the fourth. He came in just under our budget, was flexible, and seemed genuinely eager to work with us. He shared his opinion, and then reminded us that it was our decision. Throughout, we felt like Goldilocks—only checking contractors instead of tasting porridge.
It’s challenging to run a business or nonprofit. It can be challenging to be a customer or donor. Using these experiences as cautionary tales, this column will help you examine your customer and donor experiences to create ones that are “just right”—the kind that lead to meaningful partnerships and dynamic outcomes.
1. Hear the Vision
Earlier this month, I shared an airplane ride with a man who made and gave away 128 million dollars. Over the years he’d received many proposals from nonprofit organizations, almost all of which he read and trashed. He knew what he wanted. He sought nonprofit leaders that were successfully using technology to partner with him and take their work to the next level in the direction of his vision. While he appreciated and needed information to fine-tune his investments, the nonprofits that received his funds worked within the overall direction he established.
How much guidance does your customer or donor want or need? First, find out their vision. Successfully providing customers with a “just right” experience involves listening to learn the extent to which the vision is cast. Assuming you are willing to take on the work, ask the customer or donor if they want your expert advice. If yes, provide them with workable options. Let them decide.
2. Be Forthcoming
In 2000, the National Alliance to End Homelessness came up with a goal to end homelessness by 2015. I was convinced upon first hearing it that the goal was unobtainable. It reminds me of our second contractor’s bid—a fine start that lacks a full understanding of the enormity of the job or fears that the truth will scare off people.
While everyone appreciates a good deal, thoughtful people don’t want future unpleasant investment surprises. In the end, your desirable donors and customers want relationships that provide fair value to them and to you. This allows you both to achieve your objectives and be available for future partnerships. Donors don’t want to find out that the hungry families you promised to fix last year still need food—they thought they gave you money to fix that. They need to understand that while you will feed hungry people this year, some will have ongoing needs, and other people will encounter hunger. Customers want to understand what will be done and its full cost.
Ask for a budget. Then determine what it will cost to provide the service or product. Customers and donors often need education about the true costs. If you fear that it will scare your customer or donor, identify the bare minimum needed and provide upward options. What can you achieve within the customer or donor’s budget?
3. Take Prudent Risks
Somewhere around eighteen months and two years of age, toddlers discover the word “no.” Once found, most use it with the total abandon of rioters finding a stash of liquor. Then one day they learn to use “no” more carefully. What causes the change? One day on automatic, they say no to a cookie, toy, or experience they wanted—and lose it. The loss clarifies the limits of using the word “no” universally.
Of the four contractors, one required a deposit for design and pricing. Given the reputation of the firm and our experiences to date, we paid it. Afterward, they refused to let us access to the design and scope of work unless we were onsite —information that others provided for free.
Businesses and nonprofits establish “nos” – often in response to being used. People respect organizations that establish policies to protect their resources. The blunder is creating 30-foot walls when a simple picket fence will eliminate most of the risk. The compounding blunder, like the toddler saying no to everything, is applying the policy indiscriminately –in our case we brought the basic design and pricing with us.
By all means create boundaries to protect your resources. When it’s sensible, take prudent risks and lower them.
4. Win the Day
Contractor four was the “just right” porridge. He won the day —and you can too, by:
- Expressing gratitude. The customer and donor choose you. Remember the honor.
- Listening well. Offer options and recommendations. Invite customer and donor choices.
- Accepting prudent risk. Design policies to reduce risk. Apply with flexibility.
- Being confident. The fourth contractor never asked us a budget, and when I opened the email with the bid, I held my breath. He came in under budget, and provided room for extras.
Never forget that it’s challenging to be a savvy customer and donor. By listening to visions, offering your expertise if requested, being forthcoming about costs, and taking prudent risks, you will win customers and donors who find your services or products just right.