February 25, 2014

Earned Income: Turn Your Disadvantages Into Advantages

Example of Earned Revenue: a cleaning service

Far too many nonprofit leaders, these and similar arguments persuade them that earning more income is impossible.

They say:

  • Our location is terrible.
  • The competition has all the benefits.
  • We don’t have enough money.
  • Our employees won’t be able to compete.

How often do you hear arguments like these about why you can’t earn more income? And because of them or other competitive advantages, do you pass up opportunities earned revenue? This article contains three earned income examples from nonprofits that overcame their disadvantages to earn new revenue.

These leaders want to help their organizations earn more. Their organizations need income. Unfortunately, too many people look at their deck of cards and see only twos, threes, and fours. They believe everyone else aces.

Yet many nonprofits with competitive challenges create more mission outcomes and earned income. How can you avoid this mistake?

Embrace three critical mindsets: 1. Use all your assets. 2. Recognize that you can play some low-value assets as trump cards. 3. Remember that you have many assets.

The Economy and Job Challenges  

Opportunity Village in Las Vegas serves developmentally delayed adults. One of their goals is to create employment opportunities for these adults. The Village faces significant challenges finding appropriate jobs:

  • The prospective employees are low-skilled.
  • Most have never had jobs.
  • Until their personal experience proves otherwise, many employers will be concerned about supervision and work quality.
  • The deuce of spades? Nevada’s high unemployment rates.

Opportunity Village hunts for places where they will have market advantages and can provide excellent value. To provide stability for their employees and the organization, they pursue work that can never be off-shored. One solution is to provide cleaning services in hyper-secure locations such as military bases. Here, teams trained and supervised by Opportunity Village tidy up and safeguard secrets.

In top-secret spots, what competitive advantages do Opportunity Village employees provide? Team members quickly pass security clearances. Once hired, they rarely leave. These two issues plague other cleaning services.

The work is top-notch because of Opportunity Villages’ approach to cleaning. Teams support each other by working together, and each team member performs just one task, such as vacuuming the floor or emptying the trash.

Opportunity Village also has three high-value cards to play:

  • The first is the pureness of the heart of the team’s employees. Cleaning jobs that bore most employees remain valuable, engaging, and stimulating to team members.
  • The setup is nearly impossible to infiltrate for espionage purposes.
  • Finally, employers who hire Opportunity Village Teams model corporate responsibility. They provide local citizens with special needs employment.

Opportunity Village fulfills its mission by recognizing its competitive disadvantages and reducing them. It generates employment opportunities for 1,500 people. The employment service’s contract revenue is 50 percent of Opportunity Village’s 25 million-dollar annual budget.

Funding An Old Building and Distant Location

Likewise, in Lake Wales, Florida, Bok Tower Gardens combined two challenges to create Karen’s Platinum Nonprofit More—more mission and more income. For several years, the Garden’s staff and the board mulled over what to do about a 1929 mansion located adjacent to the Gardens. Like many old buildings, it took money to keep it up. Unfortunately, staff could entice few to spend an extra six dollars to tour it.

The Gardens’ second disadvantage, from some perspectives, is its location. It’s 37 mostly rural miles from Disney World and the other Orlando tourist destinations. Before enjoying the Gardens, visitors must take a rambling drive.

The trump card Bok Tower Gardens found came by linking the drive and the opportunity to view the Mansion together. Staff decided to sell the mansion tickets at the front entrance instead of the Visitor’s Center. When they arrive, visitors are asked, “Would you like a combo ticket today?” when they have their credit cards out. It includes both the Gardens plus the Mansion.” In essence, the Gardens transformed the fast-food question, “Would you like fries with your burger?” into a query that created for them the Platinum Nonprofit More. In this case, 300 percent more visitors paid an extra $6 for a combo ticket—during the Great Recession.

Lack of Money 

Another common nonprofit disadvantage is a lack of money. The money roadblock motivated the Houston Arts Alliance instead of it being a barrier. The Alliance is well on its way to meeting its goal to raise $250,000 annually by providing other entities with great online calendars. The University of Houston and others are customers. The Houston Arts Alliance’s high-value card? Their expertise is at creating great calendars for the local arts community. The Alliance didn’t make a significant investment to start earning revenue since the staff had already attained the skills. At the same time, the service does not directly create more mission—art in the community—the income it earns does.


As a nonprofit, do you have competitive disadvantages earning income? Yes, without a doubt. Are you letting them stop you from earning more revenue? That’s up to you. Take a second look, and a third, and fourth, as necessary. Find your advantages. Discover places where you can play your disadvantages as trump cards. Believe opportunities exist and find them.

For more answers, check out this Nonprofit  CEO Library.

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Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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