Nonprofit Funding Models

This is an excellent article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review that can stimulate thinking about nonprofits and, for nonprofit leaders, can provide some guidance on the reality that nonprofits are always in two types of work, that of their mission, and that of raising funds to support their mission.

And though there are some models left out, it is a good introduction to thinking about nonprofits in this important way.

An excerpt.

“Money is a constant topic of conversation among nonprofit leaders: How much do we need? Where can we find it? Why isn’t there more of it? In tough economic times, these types of questions become more frequent and pressing. Unfortunately, the answers are not readily available. That’s because nonprofit leaders are much more sophisticated about creating programs than they are about funding their organizations, and philanthropists often struggle to understand the impact (and limitations) of their donations.

“There are consequences to this financial fuzziness. When nonprofits and funding sources are not well matched, money doesn’t flow to the areas where it will do the greatest good. Too often, the result is that promising programs are cut, curtailed, or never launched. And when dollars become tight, a chaotic fundraising scramble is all the more likely to ensue.

“In the for-profit world, by contrast, there is a much higher degree of clarity on financial issues. This is particularly true when it comes to understanding how different businesses operate, which can be encapsulated in a set of principles known as business models. Although there is no definitive list of corporate business models,2 there is enough agreement about what they mean that investors and executives alike can engage in sophisticated conversations about any given company’s strategy. When a person says that a company is a “low-cost provider” or a “fast follower,” the main outlines of how that company operates are pretty clear. Similarly, stating that a company is using “the razor and the razor blade” model describes a type of ongoing customer relationship that applies far beyond shaving products.

“The value of such shorthand is that it allows business leaders to articulate quickly and clearly how they will succeed in the marketplace, and it allows investors to quiz executives more easily about how they intend to make money. This back-and-forth increases the odds that businesses will succeed, investors will make money, and everyone will learn more from their experiences.

“The nonprofit world rarely engages in equally clear and succinct conversations about an organization’s long- term funding strategy. That is because the different types of funding that fuel nonprofits have never been clearly defined.3 More than a poverty of language, this represents—and results in—a poverty of understanding and clear thinking.

“Through our research, we have identified 10 nonprofit models that are commonly used by the largest nonprofits in the United States. (See “Funding Models” on page 37.) Our intent is not to prescribe a single approach for a given nonprofit to pursue. Instead, we hope to help nonprofit leaders articulate more clearly the models that they believe could support the growth of their organizations, and use that insight to examine the potential and constraints associated with those models.

“BENEFICIARIES ARE NOT CUSTOMERS

One reason why the nonprofit sector has not developed its own lexicon of funding models is that running a nonprofit is generally more complicated than running a comparable size for-profit business. When a for-profit business finds a way to create value for a customer, it has generally found its source of revenue; the customer pays for the value. With rare exceptions, that is not true in the nonprofit sector. When a nonprofit finds a way to create value for a beneficiary (for example, integrating a prisoner back into society or saving an endangered species), it has not identified its economic engine. That is a separate step.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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