Operating a nonprofit requires you to focus on strategy while simultaneously fundraising and managing operations, staff, volunteers, events, and more, a key lesson I learned building and running a nonprofit in a competitive space.
A little over a decade ago, I was the CEO of the Andruzzi household, wife to a professional football player, and mother to, at the time, four wonderful children (we now are blessed with five!). Then my husband Joe, a New England Patriots three-time Super Bowl-winning offensive guard, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt’s lymphoma.
While the diagnosis ended his playing career, it launched our family into a new position – one where we dedicated our lives to raising awareness of the cost of cancer and providing financial assistance to cancer patients and families residing in New England, allowing them to focus on fighting the disease and not on how they will be able to pay mounting bills.
During the 13 years I’ve been president and CEO of the organization, I’ve learned a few things about what it takes to succeed in a competitive space (for dollars and attention), such as cancer patient support.
Size the Market
The first thing nonprofit leaders should consider when contending for donor support is understanding the sandbox they’re playing in fully. For example, in New England, many nonprofits are doing incredible work on behalf of cancer patients and their families. Whether your organization is in its infancy stages or an established institution, the competition over dollars will always exist. Setting your organization apart and finding a niche you can own is critical to success.
Create a Support Network
While I was always drawn to various philanthropic endeavors early in my career, creating and leading my own nonprofit presented a new learning curve. The first step was to surround myself with like-minded thinkers – professionals from all areas of business from whom I could learn. Whether it was donor database management, marketing, positioning, hiring, or other managerial skills, I really had to embrace the idea of “drinking from a firehose.”
The key is to become a sponge and push yourself and the team to continuously learn, adjust, and repeat. Building a professional expert network can help you and your team continuously learn.
Find Ways to Innovate
Recently, we honored a Joe Andruzzi Foundation patient with our 10,000th grant. If you had told me 13 years ago that we would impact the lives of more than 22,000 patients and their family members, I wouldn’t have believed it. But, through the tireless efforts of our staff, volunteers, donors, and partners, we surpassed that goal.
However, in a competitive landscape such as cancer support, there are only so many dollars available that can be distributed amongst all deserving organizations. This dynamic forces organizations like ours and others to create new revenue streams. Beyond annual events and direct donor appeals, nonprofits must innovate their methods of engaging with their base. They have to find creative ways to introduce their cause to new donors.
The way we’ve learned to accomplish that is through creative brainstorming, trying out-of-the-box ideas, and pushing our organization into new sub-markets within New England. I’m not claiming that everything the Joe Andruzzi Foundation has tried turned out to be a success but allowing ourselves to fail and learn from the experience has been a critical step in finding success. Organizations must feel liberated to experiment and fail in order to succeed.
Create Parallel Paths
I’ve learned that the discipline of focusing on strategy while fundraising, managing operations, staffing, events, and more is nearly impossible to do. In our early years, we were constantly moving to the “next thing” as opposed to stitching our activities together in a cohesive strategy, allowing one to build upon another.
For example, starting out, we only accepted patient grant applications via a paper trail. We knew that it was necessary to move to an electronic application system, but at the same time, we couldn’t stop accepting submittals from potential grant recipients in desperate need. Processing paper applications while developing a plan and strategy to digitalize the process was a painful task, but it was crucial and had to get done.
Through that realization, we were able to sophisticate our operations and, ultimately, help even more patients. Building parallel paths that allow your organization to effectively tackle the daily functions of the business while simultaneously developing new strategies to the playbook is critical.
While the business of operating a nonprofit in a competitive space can sometimes be daunting, you must never lose sight of the mission. Over the years, I’ve learned to remind myself and my team that the business side of running our organization is just as important as the mission itself. If the business decisions you make are sound and mission-focused, you will continue to make progress toward reaching your North Star.
Jen Andruzzi is the president, and CEO of the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in North Attleboro committed to providing help, hope, and a reason to smile, for New England cancer patients and their families by contributing financial support when it is needed most.
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