A recent article in The Washington Post describes how the 100-year-old nonprofit 4-H is attempting to redefine its image so that it remains programmatically relevant, and attracts both members and funders. I couldn’t help but contrast 4-H’s path forward with organizations such as Share Our Strength and KaBOOM!—newer organizations with charismatic social entrepreneurs at their helms that have swiftly and successfully scaled their impact.

Over the last 20 years, there has been tension between organizations started by individual social entrepreneurs, who are dramatically changing the nonprofit landscape by introducing new organizational models and technologies, and 100-year-old (or older), legacy nonprofits, which stand on tradition and struggle to stay relevant to today's philanthropists and new members. While these groups seemingly have little in common, they could learn a lot from one another. If they looked for insight beyond organizations they usually consider peers—organizations that have a similar size, market, and structure—they might very well find the solutions they are seeking.

Lessons for Legacies: Attracting Transformational Philanthropy

Social entrepreneurs are exciting the imaginations of philanthropists willing and able to make transformational investments. Their organizations, despite relatively small footprints, are attracting seven- and eight-figure gifts from donors. They are avoiding the historic, time-intensive fundraising staples like direct mail and galas, and successfully funding their missions.

Meanwhile, legacy nonprofits are seeing their traditional revenue streams flatten or decline. They are also losing large individual donations, as philanthropists consolidate their giving to fewer causes. The traditional revenue streams of The Salvation Army (red kettle donations) and Girl Scouts of the USA (cookie sales), for example, will not fuel their future plans. They are now turning to philanthropy from high-net-worth individuals as the most obvious source for sustained revenue growth.

Legacy nonprofits can take a page from the playbook of younger organizations and elevate their ability to attract attention from transformational funders by focusing on three activities:

  1. Articulate your mission in a way that hangs off a big idea—one that will excite donors’ imaginations. From there, present a hypothesis for change, illustrate specific metrics for which you will be accountable, and share personal stories that will bring your theory and its implementation to life. A more mature organization that’s doing this well is the Environmental Defense Fund. When explaining its work to donors, it translates often-complex policy objectives (cap and trade) into aspirational outcomes (averting catastrophic climate change). It offers up a big idea that donors feel is worthy of significant and transformational investment.
  2. Get your CEO and board members to actively engage in and lead fundraising. The founders and CEOs of younger nonprofits, the social entrepreneurs themselves, are out meeting donors. And while the American Red Cross can’t bring Clara Barton to meet with donors in the same way Room to Read can showcase its inspiring founder John Wood, all large nonprofits have impressive leaders, and philanthropists want to engage with them.
  3. Communicate a consistent and clear message. Social entrepreneurs are maniacal about being “on message.” They describe their work as their passion—and it’s infectious. Legacy nonprofits likewise need to convey a singular focus when answering questions like: Why are you in business? What are you trying to solve? Gone are the days of philanthropists aligning with the “all things to all people” nonprofit. You have to know who you are, and make sure every interaction you have with the world explains and illustrates that notion. It’s impossible to spend more than a few minutes with Alan Khazei—the inspiring co-founder of City Year, which has activated national service by young people for significant community impact—without him convincing you that service can transform society and that City Year offers an effective way to move the needle.

The Flip Side: Leveraging Volunteers

Most legacy nonprofits have a presence in all or most communities across the United States, sometimes across the world. Younger organizations looking to expand their impact can understandably be envious of this reach. But one of the reasons Boy Scouts of America, for example, can cost effectively operate in so many communities is because it delivers its program predominantly through volunteers. Sure, volunteers require training and support, but they are an effective force multiplier that the organization could simply not replicate at scale via paid staff.

Newer organizations’ program implementation is often staff-intensive. This delivers more-consistent outcomes, but there is greater risk of collapse under the weight of expensive delivery methods as an organization scales. College Summit, a pioneer in college access for students from low-income communities, is a great example of this. The organization has been widely recognized over the last 20 years as a leading socially entrepreneurial organization—by everyone from President Obama to the US Chamber of Commerce—but recently overhauled its program delivery model after discovering its programs were just too financially cumbersome to effectively deliver nationwide. Given the need to create greater impact with less staff, College Summit is now singularly focused on training students to act as peer leaders, armed with the information and inspiration they need to be agents for the educational advancement of themselves and their friends.

For many newer organizations, volunteers could hold the key to scaling, and social entrepreneurs should examine their programs to identify deliberate ways of using volunteers to expand the reach of their programs.

In many ways, the nonprofit sector has become siloed, with specialized staff at legacy organizations on one hand and social entrepreneurs on the other. But the solutions to solve societal challenges sometimes live in-between. Attracting transformational philanthropy and effectively leveraging volunteers to scale are two areas where organizations at seemingly dissimilar places in their history can learn from one another. But there are other lessons to learn, and more leaders need to look for solutions from peer organizations they may usually overlook.

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