“We’re short-staffed.” “Our options are limited.” “We’ve always done it this way.” For many organizations, internal processes, policies and operations can easily become an afterthought. You’re focused on improving lives. You want to boldly change the world. I challenge you to take a look at your internal operations as the first step in making that vision come to life.
Our recent Nonprofit Effectiveness Framework identified Smart Operations as one of six elements that are critical to organizations seeking to understand and achieve organizational effectiveness. The state of your operations can say a lot about your ability to achieve your mission. MacGyvered, improvised and “keep the lights on” processes and policies get you out of a temporary jam, but with smart, effective operations you can be better stewards of the resources that the public has entrusted to you, and ultimately better deliver on your mission.
While many things that we consider “operational” might be invisible to donors and beneficiaries, without them everything else would cease to exist. How far could you get without bills getting paid and donations deposited, proper record keeping, or policies in place to keep you accountable?
Smart operations allow you to deliver efficiently on your mission. If your operations don’t run smoothly in the background, then they are holding you back. Nonprofits frequently feel pressure that can lead them to choices that are penny wise and pound foolish, when instead a small investment in operations could pay for itself many times over by eliminating delays and distractions that add up over time.
Savvy nonprofits invest internally because it frequently produces dividends such as:
All of that adds up to stronger delivery on your mission and goals.
Let’s take a moment to address the “overhead myth.” We’ve discussed why investing in your organizational capacity is critical in producing meaningful, measurable results. And that how much a nonprofit spends on overhead does not speak to the results they get for each dollar spent. More and more nonprofits, boards, and donors understand this and apply it to their operations. If spending 1% more on operations allowed you to deliver 10% more services that would be a good trade off, right?
Instead of looking at overhead costs, consider the following question instead: do your operations allow you to deliver strong results?
The goal here is to demonstrate to your staff, board and funders that you’re in the “Goldilocks Zone” on operating costs. Not too little, not too much, but just right to get the maximum efficiency.
A good place to start is by taking inventory of your operations. Consider surveying staff on where they see “time sucks” and what pain points they’re experiencing. Look at your internal processes, manuals, procedures, and include anything you’ve been dealing with that distracts you from delivering on your mission. Your list might include:
Don’t get overwhelmed! The process of auditing, documenting, and taking stock of operations can, and should, be a productive conversation. You will not be able to immediately (or potentially ever) address all of the distractions in your workplace. But when nonprofits go through this process, their most frequent regret is not starting it sooner. From there you can begin taking steps towards truly smart operations.
By addressing internal needs, you begin the journey to effectively and sustainably achieve your mission. With a better understanding of resources and expenditures you can better plan for (or fundraise for) programs that allow you to achieve the greatest impact.