Nonprofit work isn’t for the faint of heart. During my years working as a communications director in the nonprofit industry, I experienced disheartening nonprofit problems as often as I witnessed inspirational impact.
When people first transfer from the for-profit world into the nonprofit sector, they’re often idealistic. Their dreams of making a difference initially drown out the challenging problems nonprofit organizations face every day. It doesn’t take long, however, before the long hours and constant struggles take their toll.
But this reality shouldn’t stop you from embarking on some of the most important work you’ll do in your life. In this guide, I’ll share best practices and nonprofit management tips I’ve learned from experts in a wide variety of organizations that operate effectively for a measurable impact.
The nonprofit sector consists of more than 1.54 million organizations, according to research conducted by The Urban Institute. Public charities throughout the United States bring in $2.04 trillion in revenue each year — funding that’s used for invaluable services like homeless shelters, youth groups, food banks, healthcare, academic institutions, animal clinics, and much more.
Regardless of the mission, nonprofit problems still exist. Here’s a look at nine of the most common nonprofit organization problems and solutions you can implement right away.
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Problem: Not enough staff for the work
Employee burnout and simply not having enough people to do the work are the most common and troubling nonprofit problems. When I worked for my first nonprofit, I oversaw all grant writing and media outreach while serving as a liaison between the operations staff and administration. I even ran a few programs and organized special events!
Solution: Create a volunteer program
The answer here is the age-old advice of asking for help when you need it. To create a volunteer program, start by identifying the specific tasks worth delegating. The clearer the job descriptions, the easier it will be to find people who care about your mission and are willing to chip in. For example, a local college student could write a blog or post regularly on your social media pages.
Problem: No one measures the impact
When I switched roles and worked for a government agency that funded nonprofits in my community, I saw how few were able to objectively demonstrate their impact. While heartfelt testimonials are valuable, corporations and even family funds want to see a measurable impact before allocating donations.
Solution: Implement surveys and collect data
To gather data, you may need to create a nonprofit survey of your clients. Look for other ways of measuring success, too. If you work with children, perhaps you can collect and analyze report cards. If animals are your focus, keep track of the reduction of stray calls to animal control. Think in terms of numbers, not stories.
Problem: Staff bickers and complaints
A staff that isn’t highly motivated is another all-too-common nonprofit problem. Frequently, the inevitable burnout results in unhappiness that isn’t easy to turn around. What’s worse, many leaders ignore the discontent instead of addressing it head-on.
Solution: Focus on the mission
Often, complaints can be resolved individually. But other times, team-building exercises can help remind the staff of why they’ve signed up for this work. Create a challenge for your staff to memorize your mission statement, and provide prizes for those who do. A popular raffle prize is an extra paid vacation day.
Problem: A small misunderstanding turns into a media crisis
There’s nothing worse for a nonprofit than a minor issue blown out of proportion in the local media. The best way to address this kind of crisis is to avoid it in the first place. To do that, you must get proactive with media relations.
Solution: Get proactive with your media relations
Like all relationships, it can take time to develop trust with local reporters and editors. Start by offering story ideas that shine a positive light on your work. Send holiday cards to journalists you’ve met. Offer opinions on current events that relate to your work. Be helpful and understanding, and they’ll likely return the favor.
Problem: It’s hard to keep good workers
Even in the most rewarding nonprofit environments, organizations struggle to keep good workers. Often, for-profit companies can pay more and offer better benefits. To compete, nonprofit managers must look for ways to help their team members grow.
Solution: Identify growth opportunities
First, ask your staff for ways you can support them. Would they like an hour to attend an online college class? Could you negotiate with a nearby childcare business for a reduced rate for staff? Maybe they’d appreciate monthly group lunches or complimentary chair massages. A little can go a long way for employee retention.
Problem: Funding dried up during coronavirus pandemic
Nonprofits took a hit as health precautions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic put many special events on hold. Galas that traditionally raised hundreds of thousands of dollars vanished — forcing many organizations to scramble.
Solution: Expand development plans beyond annual events
Instead of waiting for the world to change, it’s better to get creative with your development plans. For example, many organizations have started holding virtual fundraising events to continue to diversify their revenue streams.
Problem: You compete with other nonprofits
When I worked for a youth after-school program, there were at least 10 other nonprofits in the same community working with kids. While some people saw that as competition, I identified an opportunity. You can too.
Solution: Collaborate instead
Reach out to the organizations that are doing complementary work to see how you can work together. Sign formal collaboration agreements, which can be used to strengthen grant applications, too.
Problem: The administration office is inefficient
Is your desk overflowing with paperwork?
Solution: Embrace technology
The key is integrating technology into your daily operations. Link your staff communications through apps like Slack and use online efficiency tools like Google Drive to get everyone on the same page.
Problem: You feel disengaged from the public
If your community doesn’t know what you’re doing, it’s going to be challenging to ask for donations.
Solution: Create a focused social media marketing campaign
Schedule time to create a marketing plan for the year. Create a theme, a timeline, and a delegation of work among staff. It takes effort to engage the public in light of all the digital “noise” in social media, but it’s worth it. Don’t forget to include personalized, segmented, and consistent direct emails so your current supporters can also feel involved.
Look for solutions to nonprofit problems
In the face of so many challenges in the nonprofit industry, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. By keeping an optimistic approach, you can strengthen your team to support the mission.
Begin by improving the morale and effectiveness of your nonprofit organization. Start by asking your staff what needs work. Have them complete a survey — anonymously, if necessary — to rank concerns and then brainstorm as a team on how to solve them. You may be surprised at some of the ideas others have to simplify or solve the otherwise complex problems nonprofit organizations face.