The Top Five Secrets of Successful Nonprofit Organizations

While the high-tech business sector is so fast-paced that every day offers valuable progress, my days as CEO in this industry still left me wanting to do more.  As many of you can appreciate, I longed to truly make a difference in the lives of other people.  And although I did get incredible satisfaction from our company’s progress, I wanted my contribution to society to be more than helping to improve the speed and efficiency of the business world.

So, I decided to make a major life change.

As I considered a range of non-profit opportunities, I focused on identifying a role that would allow me to continue the fast-pace I was used to.  It was also important that I use the leadership, operations, marketing and sales skills I had learned and honed through years climbing the ranks of Oracle and helping to start and run several other software companies.

Bay Area Lyme Foundation offered all of this, as their mission faces some extremely challenging hurdles.  More than 380,000 people are newly affected with Lyme disease each year, yet no completely effective diagnostic or treatment exists.  Additionally, there is a great lack of understanding of all the intricacies of this disease, even within the scientific and medical communities. Despite the fact that there are six times as many people diagnosed each year with Lyme disease than HIV, government funding for Lyme disease is only a tiny fraction of that for HIV.  And, the opportunity for me to help advance Bay Area Lyme Foundation, which was started by ambitious women like myself, seemed limitless. I knew this was a place where I could make a difference.

Through this column, I hope to share with you how we’ve achieved significant outcomes so that others can make similar contributions through other important charities, whether they are starting a charity, helping to further its cause with their time, or giving financially.

Since I took the helm 3 years ago, we have been able to more than triple our funding of research for Lyme disease, from $500,000 in 2013 to $1.75 million in 2016.  A banner year in 2016, during which we raised more than $7.5M in multi-year donor contributions, has helped change the landscape in Lyme disease research across the country.  These funds have allowed the organization to exponentially increase research and education; this included introducing more scientists to the research opportunities in this area, and the initiation or expansion of collaborations with University of California, Stanford, Massachusetts General Hospital, Johns Hopkins, and Tulane, to name just a few.

Below are five steps that we are taking at Bay Area Lyme Foundation, which I believe have had a significant impact on our success.  Over the next few months, I will offer a closer look at each of these.

Invest like a venture capitalist

Just like a venture capitalist, we seek out bright talent and fresh ideas, and expect returns.  At Bay Area Lyme Foundation, we invest in novel research that is founded on proven science, and we develop relationships with researchers to help them succeed. We actively monitor their progress and report back to our donors on that progress.  We are not afraid to end a project when appropriate, and we continue to fund researchers showing positive outcomes.  Maintaining oversite and accountability for demonstrated results with regular reporting is critical.

Keep the operating board small and nimble

Large donors often desire a voice in the decisions made by the organization, and certainly are justified in wanting to decide how finances are spent. However, if the operating board becomes unwieldy, it can slow down decision making and waste time, as well as funds. Keep the Board of Directors small enough to facilitate sound and nimble decision-making. Give major donors the opportunity to make decisions in the areas that matter most to them, and invite them to serve on an Advisory Board that makes more sweeping decisions. This is a highly effective way to give them a voice in overall direction without hampering the Board’s ability to take action.

Set-up the organization so that 100% of donations go to the mission

When 100% of donations go directly to the cause, donors can be assured that their contribution – whether it’s $25 or $25,000 – is advancing the cause, not paying for essentials like rent or salaries.  It will also give donors the confidence that these overhead expenses are being carefully monitored by the major donors who make this arrangement possible.   Of course, to make this all a reality requires not only major donors.  It also requires a Board of Directors with the wisdom to know that the fundraising potential for engaging others is well worth the seemingly less aspirational gratification that comes from covering operations and administrative costs.

Maintain a start-up mentality

Like start-up companies, a successful non-profit knows how to do more with less. Staff must be carefully selected for exceptional talent and hold a passionate commitment to the cause.  You may find yourself asking your staff or volunteers to work outside their comfort range, and do work they never thought they would do – this requires devotion to the mission of the non-profit.  Remind everyone why they are there. Nothing beats spending time with people who have been afflicted by the cause you are working to remedy.  Foster a fast, intense, purpose-driven environment and don’t forget to have fun along the way.

Use business-focused tools such as customer-relationship management software

One extremely smart decision is to invest in expenditures that yield far more than their cost. One example is investing in business building tools such as customer-relationship management (CRM) software. CRM programs consolidate and provide easy access to vital information about your donors and potential donors that allow you to effectively cultivate these relationships. Data collected helps you get to know and serve your constituents better – their level of participation, donations, and personal interests. These insights that can inform and accurately target your marketing, outreach, events, and fundraising initiatives.

Check back next month for more from Linda Giampa on how to invest like a venture capitalist in the non-profit sector.

Linda Giampa offers readers insights related to leadership and investment in the non-profit sector. She is currently the executive director for Bay Area Lyme Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to making Lyme disease easy to diagnose and simple to cure through research funding and awareness efforts.  Drawing on the skills and know-how developed in the high-tech industry, Linda has brought the practice of responsibility and accountability to all donors and has more than tripled the organization’s research funding. Before devoting herself to philanthropy, Linda spent 25 years in high tech, beginning with 8 years at Oracle, followed by executive leadership positions, including CEO, in a number of successful software start-up companies.  She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and currently resides in Silicon Valley.

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