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January 9, 2012
5 Tips for Engaging Your Community and Diversifying Your Revenue

Community EngagementHow does an organization grow from a good idea to making significant impact and developing a sustainable funding model? Here’s an example of organization that has done just that. 

Seymour, a rural town in Missouri, is not a particularly remarkable place. It is small, set off the highway, with little to draw in tourists or those passing by. It is a working-class community of 2,000 with its share of rural poverty. However, the 2,000 citizens living there are quite remarkable. With the help of a retired physics professor passionate about his community, they have built a local community foundation that meets the needs and betters the lives of the citizens in the Seymour area.

After 13 years, the Greater Seymour Area Community Foundation (GSACF) has established dozens of charitable funds, provided grants to many organizations, and accumulated total endowment assets of nearly $1.5 million. According to one of the founders, most of this money was collected through $10 and $25 donations. In fact, he reported only receiving six gifts over $5,000 in those 13 years.

GSACF done an amazing job engaging their community and diversifying their funding stream. As a result, their sustainability does not rely solely on one individual or entity and they haven’t suffered the financial hit that some other organizations have during this economic crisis. (I encourage you to watch the video below to learn more about this great organization.)

Though your mission may be drastically different than that of a community foundation, I believe this story highlights some very important lessons for nonprofit organizations on how to successfully engage your community and diversify your revenue.

LESSON 1: Relationships are primary.

Whether dealing with individual donors, investors, foundations, government agencies, businesses, clients, or customers - relationships matter. People want to give to people they know. Therefore, it is important to regularly expand your network of relationships and intentionally nurture and manage these relationships for deeper engagement. Develop strategies around engagement so that this process becomes intentional. Otherwise, your day to day activities may override the priority of relationship building. I explored strategies for relationship building during a webinar with one of our partners - Community Engagement: Building and Nurturing Community Support. 


LESSON 2: Messages matter.


GSACF realized early that messages matter when it’s time to get the community engaged and funders involved. Many community foundations consider themselves “grant-making organizations”. Compare this to how Jan, the GSCF President, describes the mission of their organization. She says their mission is to “improve the quality of life in the Seymour area”. This is something that appeals to a variety of potential funders - local businesses, individuals, government agencies, and other foundations. 



Consider how you share the mission of your organization with potential funders. Does it inspire people to get involved? Do you communicate a message that resonates with others? If not, perhaps it’s time to revisit and reconstruct your messaging. 


LESSON 3: Programs must address identified needs.


In addition to grant-making, GSCAF started a local arts council, initiated a family literacy program, and renovated an historic building on the square. These things were all done based upon the expressed needs and desires of the community (and because they fit with the mission of improving the quality of life in the Seymour area) and discovered through community interaction and surveys Since they were meeting expressed needs, it was much easier to raise support for these projects. 



Are your programs meeting identified needs in the community? How were the needs identified? Though community assessment? Or was it observation? Do some research and determine what the real needs are in your community and how your organization is helping to meet these needs. Then use this information when approaching potential funders to show how your programs are addressing the challenges your clients and communities are facing. 


LESSON 4: Positive outcomes are essential.


In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins says, “The point of the struggle is not just to survive, but to build an enterprise that makes such a distinctive impact on the world it touches, and does so with such superior performance, that it would leave a gaping hole - a hole that could not be easily filled by any other institution - if it ceased to exist.

”

This begs the question - what hole would your organization leave if it ceased to exist? Answering this question requires that you not only develop and implement programs that address identified needs, but that you track the results of these programs to ensure that they are truly making a positive difference. If you are, don’t stop there. Market your impact to attract a variety of funding sources to your organization.



GSCF has been able to generate and maintain support partly because those in the community understand the impact that is being made. Community members recognize the good being done and that there is no one else in the area that can easily fill that need. As a result businesses, individuals, and other funders lend their support.


LESSON 5: Communication is critical.


Finally, we have to talk about the importance of communication in regards to community engagement and revenue diversification. Communication is a critical piece to any relationship. You wouldn’t ignore your children or spouse for months at a time and expect the relationship to be healthy and thriving (or at least I hope not). The same principle applies to funders and investors. You need to communicate with them regularly to keep them engaged and excited about what’s happening at your organization. 



This may look differently based upon each type of funder and what they expect. For example individuals may expect to receive newsletters, gift-receipts, event invitations, emails, and phone calls; while institutions may require formal reporting and participation in required grantee meetings. We recommend developing a communications calendar to help you become more strategic in your communications approach.

Getting Started

GSCF has worked hard to engage their community and diversify their funding base. They have proven that nonprofits don’t have to be located in large communities or have a lot of wealthy family or institutional benefactors to be successful in this process. They just need to be intentional and committed to making it happen.

We encourage you to map your relational network, develop engaging messages, build your team, and get started today! Also, please consider sharing your challenges and successes in community engagement and funding diversification below.

Posted by Tiffany Applegate on January 9, 2012 at 3:09 PM
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