Tips for nonprofits at symposium: Engage, budget, focus

Carlos Rodriguez, CEO and president of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, initially posed five questions to the nearly 200 people who attended Sobel & Co.’s 14th annual Nonprofit and Social Services Breakfast Symposium on Wednesday at the APA Hotel in Woodbridge.

“How do you get your organization to be where it needs to be to prepare for upcoming challenges and opportunities?” Rodriguez, the moderator for the event, said.  “How do you work with your board on everything from committee selection to corporate partnerships? How can marketing and branding help you talk about the issues and the mission in which you represent? How do you raise funds to make this all happen, and, then, how do you manage those funds and use data to tie it all together?”

Helen LeFrois, vice president of development for Jersey Battered Women’s Service in Morristown, said strategic development needs to be an ongoing and inclusive process.

“It needs to engage every staff member, board member and volunteer in some way,” she said. “It also needs to produce more than money.

“Development goals should include building stronger relationships, helping board members feel comfortable raising money and understanding the interests of our donors so we can help them achieve their philanthropic goals.”

Bridget Hartnett, member in charge of the nonprofit and social services practice at Sobel & Co., said the budget, too, should include input from everyone involved at one’s nonprofit.

“Budget in its simplest form is a road map for an organization to know how they are spending their money and where it is coming from,” she said. “But, while your budget is usually set at the beginning of the year, it should be a fluid document that you always are checking your strategic plan against and account for whenever expected revenue changes.

“For example, if you budgeted for a planned $1 million annual contribution but did not actually receive it this year, you do not want to have to walk into a board meeting and say you are short $1 million when you should have been figuring out how expenses needed to change prior to.”

Monica Smith, founder and CEO of Marketsmith Inc. in Cedar Knolls, said nonprofits also need to understand how their dollars do not come from the same place.

“Each and every area of donation deserves a specific type of marketing, including unique content and deployment,” she said. “Your communications need to be able to speak directly to various donors and to what they are looking for in and from the organization.”

A nonprofit must also learn how to best utilize its board members’ time, Michael Davidson, a consultant specializing in nonprofit board development and executive coaching, said.

“Evaluating the organization against its strategic plan needs to be a major topic at every board meeting,” he said. “Often, what happens is that much of a board meeting is taken up with reports from committees and the executive director that could have been sent out far in advance. The board then engages in the details instead of discussing strategy and engagement.

“However, if the meat is on the table, and they are still not engaged or showing up for committee work, the first thing to do would be to establish a set of expectations and a governance committee in which to review board members’ performances against those expectations to decide whether a member should be asked to serve another term.”

Frank Abdale, founder and chief consultant for nonprofits at Abdale Consulting, asked those in attendance how many of their organizations were actually operating from a strategic plan.

Just 40 percent said yes.

“The real value of a strategic plan is that it articulates a vision for the future of your organization and the process of developing that vision is one that engages all of your stakeholders,” Abdale said. “Strategic planning is about answering a series of questions. For example, what change do you want to be the agent of and what impact do you want to have on the world? Where do you want to be three to five years from now? How do you put yourselves on that path? And where do all of the pieces — finance, governance, fundraising, and marketing — come into play?

“You can then create a goal for each of these areas, a mini-vision statement for the future of that area within the organization — but, without a plan that articulates who will do what and when to get you to where you want to be, you may flounder.”