Supporters have a life cycle, too

Understanding where your nonprofit is on a life cycle curve is an extremely useful way to appreciate various challenges you’re experiencing, both strategic and tactical. From founding to just a small board to growing toward having a paid staff and building program capacity, knowing the implications of life cycle theory can be essential to your organization’s ability to thrive and survive. On the same curve, decades-old nonprofits go through periods of stability, stagnation, potential decline, and (we hope) rejuvenation.

In that vein, consider that there is also a kind of life cycle that your fans, stakeholders and supporters may be going through–not just your donors but the broader subset of the people you serve. This may not be a valid model for all nonprofits, of course, but it is well worth consideration and could make a powerful difference in how you cultivate donors, incorporate volunteers, and raise grant money.

In this theory, like any “living” entity, nonprofits are in a constant state of motion: growing, building, and so on. If your mission relates to the medical industry, for example, the person served may be returned to health. Graduating from your program, the at-risk student achieves an important milestone. Because of your efforts, the important piece of land is preserved. With your support, the gay or lesbian person successfully comes out to family and the larger community. Our point is simply that this evolution is going to affect how people who are involved with you today are going to perceive your value later when their need or involvement has ended.

This scenario is not a question of whether you’ve set up your operations correctly or incorrectly; it’s a fact of who you are. Understanding this cycle, however, will save you time and money, and can ensure your long-term success. Sometimes nonprofits who approach RMA for help feel stuck, not growing, and they’re not sure why. Could this apply to you? Here are a few considerations.

1. Organize a discussion with your board and staff about this scenario. Do you feel like you are churning through supporters (including volunteers) and not retaining them? Is this a fact of life, or can it be addressed to mutual advantage? Is your typical cycle of service to people shorter than you imagined when you set out to serve/solve a problem?

2. Understanding this cycle better may mean that you need to build up your front-end orientation/familiarization process because you naturally attract lots of new people, every month.

3. Be sensitive to the fact that your board (and staff) are knowledgeable and experienced “insiders” to your issue when a lot of your current and prospective stakeholders are “newcomers.” A short and intense experience with your mission means that new people need to feel welcomed and they need to be able to come up to speed quickly.

4. When you acknowledge this cycle, you can do a better job of transitioning donors from active to legacy. In other words, just because a gay or lesbian person was helped by your services (to continue that particular example) doesn’t have to mean that they don’t continue to be your champion. If they don’t write checks in subsequent years, will they refer people or help with outreach? Or, are they more likely to feel “done” and you should turn your attention to a new generation?

5. Appreciating that there is a natural fall-off in interest in your mission can mean that your messaging will shift accordingly, i.e., “Your support will help ensure that future families won’t have to face this challenge alone.”

6. Maximizing the natural cycle of your work may mean that you should emphasize gifts to honor someone’s success, or invite memorial gifts and other commemoratives. If your work begins and ends at a certain point in peoples’ experience, then price your specific program costs or “scholarships,” and adjust appeals accordingly.

7. If the span of time that a person served or involved in your nonprofit is naturally short, be mindful of the challenge of measuring impact—meaningful outcomes—not just outputs. Thus your storytelling isn’t just who you helped this year, but also how people are doing five or ten years later. This is obviously complicated and may require that you improve how you stay in touch with former clients.

8. Ironically, we joke about a nonprofit being so effective at achieving its mission, it literally puts itself out of business. Again, this is not a right-wrong situation, but a fact of your work. It can be communicated as such: “Our vision is a world where…is no longer needed because…”

9. A short service/involvement span of time is the perfect scenario for you to build bridges with other nonprofits who serve people at a different point on the experience curve. Who is working with people before your service kicks in—and after?

10. Your approach to your mission may represent the opposite scenario, i.e., spaying and neutering pets, the kind of work that essentially never gets “done.” If so, make sure you celebrate milestones along the way, quantifying your achievements with data and benchmarks. While they care about your cause, your donors can get fatigued year after year, or attracted to some other new cause where the successes feel more obvious.