Why Legacy Practices & Assumptions Will Ruin Nonprofits

While legacy practices – the things that your nonprofit does year after year simply because “that’s how it has always been done” – make for easy planning and consistency, they could be preventing your organization from thinking strategically about each initiative and hindering your ability to keep up with the needs of today’s donors.

For example, imagine your organization has always sent three mail pieces per year. While you’re comfortable with this number and you have a positive return-on-investment (ROI), have you considered what impact adjusting the number of mail pieces could make on your organization? If you were to increase your collateral to four pieces per year, your printing and mailing costs would increase but you could bring in additional gifts. Alternatively, subtracting a print mail piece could reduce costs but also decrease donors or dollars.

Be bold! Constantly reflect on why your organization is doing things a particular way and determine if there are opportunities to strategically improve even just a small part of what you do. As you challenge the legacy practices within your organization, you will also need to confront the harmful assumptions that lead nonprofit organizations away from analyzing decisions strategically and preventing them from being bold decision-makers.

Here are five of the many assumptions created by the reliance on legacy practices and inability to be bold:

Donors will not give more than they already have.

If a donor has given your organization $50 every year for the last ten years, don’t assume that’s all they will give. Have you ever asked them to give more? Has your organization communicated what impact a larger gift could make?  Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. Perhaps ask them to turn single annual gift into a monthly gift and increase their total donation.

Everyone loves your organization.

With millions of nonprofit organizations in our world, it is impossible for everyone to support your cause, and just because you love what you do, doesn’t mean everyone else does. Sure, we’ve all heard of incredible multimillion-dollar gifts that fell out of the sky but waiting for that to happen is an ineffective strategy. Instead, focus on the donors you have and as always, work to identify introductory level (below $100) donors that you can nurture in the future. 

Nonprofits are not businesses and shouldn’t act as such.

Your primary focus is to meet your organization’s mission and raise funds to support that mission, and your secondary focus is to worry about “the other things.” However, analyzing your procedures and vendors – such as your technology contract, retirement plan, and payroll services – and making necessary adjustments in the present can set your organization up for future success. A little bit of time invested today could result in significant savings going forward.

You can’t afford to hire a talented team.

Nonprofit salaries are notoriously low. However, that shouldn’t prevent your organization from hiring the right person. Take the time to conduct a needs assessment and identify the type of employee your team needs, rather than hiring someone solely because you can afford them. Remember to invest in your team for the long haul and don’t be afraid to get creative. Investing in a talented team could be as simple as allowing schedule flexibility, providing professional development opportunities, and even letting people bring their dog to the office. Sometimes, unique perks and policies will prompt a person to accept a lower salary, enabling you to stay within your hiring budget while adding top talent to your team.

The ship is going down.

Instead of focusing on what your organization needs, talk about the needs your organization is meeting and raise funds from a position of strength. Telling donors, “our nonprofit needs new computers because our old ones are dying,” is an extremely different message than, “if we had the resources to invest in new technology, our organization could double the number of low-income students our programs impact.”

Nonprofit consultants can help your organization challenge legacy practices and harmful assumptions.

Because consultants are outside your organization, they ask the hard questions without express knowledge of your legacy practices and assumptions. An audit will enable your consultant to identify areas for improvement, challenge you and your team to think deeply about why you’re doing certain things, and encourage you to be bold.