So you made it past Valentine’s Day. Maybe you survived it proudly single, enjoying the company of friends, or doing something special with a significant other. Regardless of your relationship status, though, it’s a great time to start dating, building a relationship, and maybe even form a long-term commitment with a nonprofit organization.
When growing your career, you seek a mentor. When purchasing a home, you gain advice from professionals. When starting or raising a family, you look to your family for guidance. What do you do when you date? Get a little help from a friend. This same principle should be applied when looking at engaging with a nonprofit.
Like any good friend would tell you, take it slow. Make sure you get the all clear from its bff (staff). Check out its parents (board of directors) and what you might be looking forward to. Maybe there is an ex (financial misstep) you didn’t know about. Are you falling head over heels, because or in spite of everything you’ve come to know about this new love? Here are some guidelines to follow before going all-in with a charity.
Your first gift doesn’t need to be a major one. A $25 donation may buy a few meals, provide support for after-school programming for a few students for a day, or go toward a much larger capital campaign. You’re taking the first step in discovering how the non-profit responds to and cares about its donors. Note whether or not you receive a “thank you” from the organization. For a small gift, it may only be an email or a mail-merged form letter. What’s important is you are making a difference, and hopefully finding out how your donation is being put to use, while laying the building blocks of a relationship with the charity.
The next step in dating a charity is likely more valuable to young professionals than a modest financial contribution—your time. Coordinating volunteer activities can actually be a drain on resources for many charitable organizations. Depending on safety, privacy, training, and even laws to take into consideration, some nonprofits may have limited opportunities to volunteer or expend considerable staff time to prepare for a group volunteer event. Remember, it is a benefit to the organization, but also a privilege for you. There may never be better insight to the impact of an organization than seeing it in action. With just a few, focused and respectful hours of your time, you can make an impact for that organization, the lives of the individuals they serve, and our community.
If a nonprofit struggles to communicate its impact, then it is likely struggling on delivering programs that create impact. Charities and their representatives should be able to clearly explain who they are, what they’re trying to accomplish, and why they are needed. If they can’t, then find one that can.
Every nonprofit should have a mission and vision statement. Do they align with the programs they offer? Are the programs productive and creating change for the people they are intended to serve? Is another organization in the community doing a better job of executing similar programs? Sometimes nonprofits are competing for the same dollars and have a disproportionate amount of success in utilizing their resources. This may be a good opportunity for collaboration to lift the underperforming program up, or for the more successful program to expand, as the services they provide in one geographic area may be needed in another. Even then, should your hard-earned dollars go to a charity which isn’t using them effectively?
Whether it be an annual fundraising event, volunteer appreciation dinner, or steering a particular project for the organization—there’s a committee for that. This is a great way to get to know your charity better, but also contribute in a more substantial way. Even if you aren’t capable of making a large financial gift, helping coordinate a successful fundraiser or taking the responsibility off of staff to organize a volunteer event is a way to amplify your impact.
Research has shown that the overwhelming majority of charities in the United States are not only responsible and honest, but well-managed. That said, do your research before making significant financial gifts. There are many resources available to know how trustworthy a charitable organization is. Once you have done your research, give with confidence. One of the biggest constraints for nonprofit organizations is cash flow, with a direct correlation to serving more people with their mission if they have more money to invest into programs.
Not all agencies are perfect. In the case of some online rating websites, they may require additional work to achieve a higher rating at the expense of energy diverted from delivering services to those in need. With that disclaimer in place, check out the charity’s website and see if they publish their IRS Form 990 publicly. This form lists the pertinent financial information required annually by the IRS, and some nonprofit organizations utilize this document as an opportunity to include narratives about how the money spent was impactful in the community. Charity Navigator and Guidestar are two other online resources to verify the accountability and transparency of an agency. Lastly, and arguably more importantly, ask around within the community, friends, or colleagues about the reputation and history of an organization. As with the online sources, though, be wary of skewed perceptions or lagging grief with an agency which may have overcome a checkered past.
You’ve made several donations by now. You’ve joined a committee and found new ways to give beyond your individual financial means. You’ve also done your research to gain an understanding of the organization’s goals, progress toward them, stewardship of funds, and accountability to the community it serves. Even then, you may admit, there is more of yourself to give. The question remains, do you have three or more years to give for the average term on a nonprofit board?
One of the most rewarding, and needed, services you can provide a non-profit is to join its board of directors. Not only are charities regularly looking for professionals to sit on their boards, but they are looking for individuals who are connected to the mission, provide an inclusive representation of the community served, and are willing to do more than just vote “aye” or “nay” at a bi-monthly or quarterly meeting. They’re looking for more than a seat warmer just because the organization’s bylaws require a certain number of board seats to be filled. Nonprofits thrive when they have passionate board members who take a vested interest in the personnel, financials, programs, advocacy and reporting.
How do you benefit? Innumerable ways. You will gain leadership skills, an understanding of organizational governance, professional and personal development, patience, finding your own voice among a group of leaders, and an impact on the community you likely could never achieve on your own. Nonprofit boards are a great way to network and build community relationships beyond the walls of your full-time job. Most importantly, in my opinion, it is the best way to build and support a community you can be proud of and one that future generations can thrive in.
You owe it to yourself to be successful, and you also may owe it in some ways to the nonprofit that was serving you as much as you thought you were serving it. Make sure you continue to share your appreciation and belief in the mission by giving what you can financially, of your time, and of your ever-growing network. This should continue long after you’ve fulfilled your obligations on the board. It may even last a lifetime, but so will the friendships and the pride in what was accomplished together, for the betterment of the entire community.
Guest blog authored by Bryan Tanner, director of strategic engagement with United Way of St. Joseph County. Bryan brings over 30 years of community service experience, contribution as a member of 4 non-profit boards, fundraising of nearly a million dollars, and management of several charitable programs or projects to our community. He has been an active participant within YPN for over 7 years, is a past city council member in Mishawaka, and volunteers over 200 hours every years between Lions Club activities, coaching youth sports, and community