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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

At All Costs Avoid a Mission Deficit

by Jerold Panas

The financial strength of your organization is important for all the reasons you know – but especially from a fundraising standpoint. No one wants to give to an organization with financial woes, to save the sinking Titanic.

If you’ve been balancing your budget, yours is among the fortunate organizations – well-managed and with good board oversight. But what if you’re perched precariously on the precipice, challenged each year to make ends meet. It can be a steep, slippery slope. Ah, that’s the static that crackles.

Balancing the budget can be done in two ways.You can either reduce your costs or increase your revenue. The latter is always the preferable way. 

Oh, sure – eliminate unnecessary expenses. Cut the fat. But your responsibility as a trustee is to bring in the additional revenue. I’ve witnessed firsthand boards that collectively roll up their sleeves and take action. The wrong action! They slash away at expenses … and undercut their mission.

Fundraising Habits

That’s what happened at the New York Public Library some years back. The city and state had severely curtailed its allocations, cutting the Library’s revenue in half. And to make matters worse, the fundraising program was stalled.

The president of the Library eliminated staff and opened fewer hours each day. When that didn’t save enough, he closed the Library two days a week. Then three. After that, he closed branches.

Enter Vartan Gregorian, the new president. With a blend of charm and persistence, he mobilized the board and gave them marching orders. He made them understand their role was to give (and to give plenty!) and to ask others for support. Within two years, the situation was turned around. And to this day the New York Public Library flourishes.

For trustees to allow a mission deficit is unpardonable, an abdication of the trust placed in them as board members. When this happens, you can hear the dull clang of the organization’s death knoll.

Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene, Oregon is one of the largest medical centers in the Northwest. I was at a meeting of the board a while back. The debate was heated. There was a financial crisis. The board was split down the middle.

Should they severely cut programs? Eliminate free services? Discontinue their extensive outreach programs? Doing these things would surely save a lot.

Or should the board launch an intensive fundraising campaign requiring trustees to give more than they ever had, and to make a concerted effort to ask others to give. The debate seesawed.

I remember vividly what happened next.

“Sister, what do you suggest we do?” asked one board member.

Sister Veronica was the beloved president of the hospital. She stood. The room fell quiet. Sister spoke: “No money, no mission.”

That was all she said. But that was enough. Trustees voted unanimously and enthusiastically to proceed with raising the money to fund their mission-driven activities.

Remember Sister’s admonition when you’re tempted to emaciate your program. No money, no mission. Those four words say it all.

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