23 Oct

Why Some Organizations Survive and Others Don’t

It is not easy to be in any business, especially the nonprofit business. As a strategic planner and organizational development consultant, people often call me when their organization is in trouble.  They want to know if I can help save them. While there are no guarantees of success, I tell them I can help give them a fighting chance to save their organization. In my experience, whether or not they are successful comes down primarily to these factors:

  1. Leadership. LeadershipLeadership. Someone has to be in charge and people need to know who it is. The person in charge needs to be making sure all the other things on this list are happening either through their work or by delegation. The leader needs to be willing to make hard decisions. Leadership means tending to the immediate needs and looking down the bend and around to see what is happening externally that is likely to affect the organization. (HINT: Your true leader isn’t always the one in the position of power. You may need to align positions and leadership.)
  2. Mission and Vision. The organization needs to have a clearly articulated and agreed upon mission and vision that are tethered to the realities of the market. What does success look like in the future? How will you measure it? How do you make sure you are in synch with the market you operate in or what is your plan to influence and move the market (much harder)? (HINT: The vision is never survival for its own sake.)
  3. Customer Service and Responsiveness. The leadership has to be paying attention to your customers. Your customers need to feel heard from and that their needs, at a minimum, are met in real-time (to thrive long-term you need to exceed their expectations). For all nonprofits, word of mouth marketing is key and your current customers are your best – or your worst – word of mouth marketers. (HINT: Staff can be really defensive. If your staff is not open to feedback, they are not the right people.)
  4. Continually Improving Product that is Valued. Your product better be good and getting better all the time. It also must be priced in a way that your customers perceive it to be worth the price, and they have to be able to afford to pay it. (HINT: All products must evolve. Value is not an absolute term. It means the price that people are willing to pay given the other choices in the market.)
  5. Marketing. You can’t keep your product a secret. I can’t tell you how many organizations tell me “we are the best kept secret”. If your website is stale or boring and you are not multi-channel marketing, you are in trouble. (HINT: See also Number 3 and train your customers to be informed, energized and active word of mouth marketers.)
  6. Resources. You need to know your numbers and what it takes to run your business (how much you get from revenue including philanthropic dollars and what your expenses are). (HINT: Most nonprofits are under-resourced. Lack of development strategy, training and diversification are often the cause. Earned revenue must be optimized. The challenges are that it is hard to get investors or customers if you haven’t fixed the beginning of this list.)
  7. Time. A turn-around strategy takes time. Organizations that don’t address their problems head on early on and plot a course of action leave themselves little runway to course correct. (HINT: The sooner you diagnose the problem(s) and put a turn-around team and strategy in place, the better your chances of success.)

Turning around a nonprofit that is in trouble is not easy. It is a partnership of professionals, volunteers and often, outside consultants. While success is not guaranteed, if you believe in your organization and your mission, it is always worth the fight.

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is President of Fridman Strategies, Inc. (, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching for nonprofits.  She is the author of On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service. Nanette can be reached at

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