The three stages of charitable organizations

All charities fall into three categories of vitality: ascending, descending, or plateauing. Each category calls for a different strategy for communicating with the audiences that will help them achieve their missions. The first step to creating that strategy is recognizing which category your organization falls into.

Ascending: These nonprofits are the hot ones, the ones with the model that funders are currently drawn to. Either because of charismatic, dynamic leadership, a “new” way of approaching a problem, or because the mission is new and urgent, these organizations typically have trouble making meaningful contact with all the individuals and organizations that want to be part of their mission. These are largely new supporters who will be long-time supporters if you treat them right, but will find another cause if you don’t.

Because your organizations are growing rapidly, focused on their cause, you sometimes forget to connect with their supporters. Failure to do this will inevitably lead to the organization falling short of its potential. You have to strike while the iron is hot. If you miss your opportunity, you may wait a long time to feel the wind under your wings again.

Descending: These are the nonprofits that have fallen out of favor with their supporters. Donations are dwindling. The best staffers are fleeing. Budget cuts are increasing the work loads of those who remain, and killing esprit de corps at the same time. Key major donors have left for greener pastures, the grantmakers don’t love you any more, and mission drift is apparent.
You desperately need to turn things around and then communicate the new direction to your existing support base and to the potential new donors that can put you back in the ascending mode. Because if you don’t, you’ll fall completely off the radar and go the way of the dodo bird.

Plateauing: This is, in many ways, the most treacherous position to be in. You have a solid existing support base. You get some grants, have your annual fundraiser (or two), but you aren’t growing. Year after year, your client base remains the same. Revenue is stagnant. The staff is starting to get nervous about the lack of internal urgency to expand your services. There is talk of “leadership transition challenges.” The best board members have resigned after making some half-hearted efforts to kick the organization into higher gear.

The fact is, you aren’t plateauing — you’re in descent. There is no such thing as a safe plateau in the nonprofit world. You need to launch an aggressive communications and outreach strategy while you still have the resources and the staff to pull it off. It’s time to reconnect with your existing donor base, and attract new donors who will be the lifeblood of your organization as you propel yourself into an exciting growth stage.

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