Rural Nonprofits Lack Planning Expertise

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There have been several efforts targeting the advancement of rural communities and their welfare. However, the nonprofits that play a pivotal role in providing service to these same areas are struggling to operate efficiently. A recent survey conducted puts the focus on their plight.

Our firm appealed to over 100 organizations in a 20-county area focused in southeastern Indiana, bordered primarily by Interstates 65 and 70. The results were not surprising, given our consulting interactions, and unfortunately, they did not offer the promise for the future that will be necessary to meet the emerging social infrastructure issues.

One of the more important sustainability questions addressed planning. The percentage of responses possessing each of the plan options is noted and implications discussed briefly below.

Business Continuity Plan - 16 Percent - Natural Disasters, fires, frozen pipes, computer ransomware, and other interruptions can leave an organization scrambling to continue service.  Planning for disasters that we hope will never happen is not just wise; it’s imperative to negate an interruption in service to clients. The surveyed organizations generally possess limited staff and unfortunately, the ability to focus on these big-picture items can be lost when left to volunteer positions.

Succession Plan - 24 Percent - Who will provide the future leadership for the organization when the current leaders are no longer willing or able? A succession plan can identify the process and/or the individuals responsible for ensuring the organization doesn't miss a beat. Great planning not only identifies who would be ready now, but also, who might be "on deck" or have potential to be. Retirements, accidents, resignations, and other unexpected events can accelerate the need for succession planning. Over 75 percent of the surveyed organizations haven’t given this much thought or don’t see it as a priority.

Marketing or Volunteer Recruitment Plans - 28 Percent - We often hear the pleas "we need more volunteers!" However, our survey showed that very few of the organizations have taken the time to lay out a plan for attracting them. Likewise, the organizations have not done much planning surrounding their marketing efforts, which have direct impact on volunteer recruitment success. Staffing limitations and a lack of a sense of urgency contribute to this lack of planning.

Crisis Communications Plan - 32 Percent - Ironically, the very organizations that so often deal with individuals and organizations in crisis, have not done their own crisis planning. Crisis management and crisis communications planning help answer questions in "normal" times and allow us to prepare for the unthinkable. Who will serve as the communications team?  What steps will they take?  What resources need to be available? Who will communicate with whom? Crises come in all shapes and forms, from employee misconduct to disgruntled customer retaliation and natural disasters. Over 67 percent of our surveyed recipients have taken little to no action in planning for the inevitable and are vulnerable as a result.

Development Plan - 52 Percent - While we’ve seen improvements in the region, born out of necessity, rural nonprofits still have a way to go when it comes to development planning. At a time when deeper donor relationships are key, special events seem to rule in this part of the State. A few larger organizations have learned to integrate the two. A successful development plan could help many of the organizations move to the next level and be better prepared to deal with the challenges of the future. The plan could provide the necessary focus on donor development, prospects, and the proper campaign mix for the organization; including special events, annual campaign, major gifts and any potential capital campaign.

Strategic Plan - 80 Percent - The granddaddy of them all, strategic planning, seems to be appreciated by many of the nonprofits surveyed, however the flip side shows work is still needed. Boards are responsible for the strategic direction of the organization and if it’s not written somewhere then how can progress be measured or evaluated? Twenty percent of the organizations surveyed face that dilemma and need to work toward identifying their strategies.

In summary, the organization’s surveyed are primarily smaller and have limited staff and budgets. That fact contributes to their inability to build the necessary planning tools. Many of the plans are considered somewhat of a luxury as these organizations deal with their most immediate crises or next special event. This fact is complicated when the planning process is primarily staff driven. Board volunteers could help to fill the void that exists, as could an outside catalyst, such as a local, regional, or state foundation that wanted to provide additional capacity building incentives.

Rural communities face limited resources to enable the planning process. However, the desire to implement is strong and so is the vision for what could be. Who can step up to help these important pillars of the smaller communities?

David J. Fry is the President/Owner of Effective Advancement Strategies.

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