Saturday, November 7, 2009

Understanding Facilities (continued)

In my last post I gave an overview of facility planning basics. Here are some further thoughts and links for implementing cost savings, risk reduction, and quality improvement.

Once you decide to do a project, there are a number of different delivery methods you may wish to consider, based on the nature and complexity of the project, and the pool of expertise available. For very simple and small projects you might want to use a design/build approach, which can simplify the logistics and lower costs. For anything more complex, however, you will give up too much—in terms of cost or quality of results or both—if you don’t separate design and construction.

Generally you will use an architect, with a battery of appropriate engineering and technical consultants, for design. There are easy ways to find an architect, and there are effective ones. The effective ones require knowledge, research, discussion, and time. For an overview of this issue, see the article “Selecting an Architect” on the Synthesis Partnership website.

For construction, you will have to choose between using a general contractor and a construction manager. In simplest terms a general contractor bids competitively a fixed amount for your project and then works with subcontractors as he or she chooses. A construction manager works with you on a fee basis to get the best prices from subcontractors. If the project or parts of it come in below budget, the construction manager gets part of the savings as an incentive. Many variables go into the decision of which approach to use. There is more about that in our webinar Building Understanding part 2, which will be offered on November 18. 2009, at 1:00pm Eastern time, and again in early 2010—get more detail and a free registration for the November 18 webinar here.

This webinar will also address the issue of a client-favorable contract. Careful crafting of a client-favorable contract has major cost and risk advantages over using the stock contracts offered by the professional association of architects. There is more about that on the Synthesis Partnership website: “Client-Favorable Contracts for Design and Construction".

It is essential to have an experienced project manager and an attentive oversight committee that keeps close enough watch to address potential problems quickly, before they get more costly to correct. Architects and contractors have their own priorities and value systems; it is inevitable that substantial budget and quality issues will arise that are beyond the mandate of the project manager to settle. It is important to be aware that an institution always needs to exercise oversight of a building project, and that the CEO and board will need to be involved. For more on the responsibility of a board, see "To Build or Not to Build," published in Trusteeship, the journal of the Association of Governing Boards, on the Synthesis Partnership website.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Understanding Facilities

Anticipating three presentations in November, a discussion of facility planning in this blog seems timely.

On November 13 I’ll be joining an architect, a project manager and a museum director to present “What You Need to Tell Your Architect” at the New England Museum Association annual conference in Nashua NH.

On November 4 and 18 I’ll be doing a two-part webinar on facility planning for nonprofits (1:00pm Eastern) as part of the Wednesday Webinar series. Part 1 will focus on an overview and key concepts; I’ll be joined in part 2 by Randall Reaves, to look at some of the decisions and options encountered in developing a project. For more information and free registration click here .

The basic idea of all of these presentations is that trustees and senior staff need to know what they are getting into, and how to avoid the unnecessary costs and risks that encumber almost all nonprofit projects. Facilities are an extraordinarily expensive solution to any need. If you need to build—or think you might—there are ways to reduce costs, risks and stress, and increase the benefits from a new or renovated facility. Many of these actions are not things that you’d know to consider if you don’t build regularly; some will likely be overlooked even if you have a full-time facilities department.

The Order of Things

For many organizations, the first reaction to any perceived need in facilities is the instinct to hire an architect (or even a design-build contractor). Unfortunately, the design skills that an architect can offer are only one factor in a wise, cost-effective, and long-term solution to facilities issues. And they are far from the first step.

Design and construction are expensive acts of execution; major expenses (and major mistakes) can be avoided by starting with the most fundamental steps of institutional planning and following them in sequence, to make certain that all of the right questions are being asked. The needs and answers that initially seem obvious often miss the real opportunities.

The first step should be some form of strategic planning, followed by program planning, and business planning. Only with a fully current consensus on vision and strategy, reinforced by a clear evaluation of program needs and a tough and thorough business plan, can an institution hope to conceive, design and build the right facilities—if, indeed, facilities are the right solution at all.

Once you have brought all of this planning up to date, you will be in a position to evaluate the need for a new facility. When thinking about any new project, the first question to ask is whether there are non-facility solutions that might address the problem without incurring the extraordinary expense of construction. Can functions be shuffled to re-balance under-used areas with over-used ones? Can an existing building be transformed more cheaply than a new one can be built? Or vice versa?

Define the project

If construction is unavoidable, what is needed to define the project?

Often nonprofits identify some very general issues and expect an architect to figure out the details. Left to their own devices, architects will necessarily invent forms and functions that represent only a limited insight into the needs and wisdom of their client. If architects are given clear and precisely articulated goals, they may well be able to reflect the aspirations of their clients in striking ways. And not necessarily at any greater cost.

An institution is best served when it prepares an architectural program and a project budget before selecting an architect. A well-developed program document will help you first to budget the project and then to measure the design work against your goals. The traditional quantitative program lists all of the spaces required—down to utility rooms and closets—with their purposes, detailed characteristics, areas in square feet, all of the equipment needed, and important adjacencies (spaces that should be next to each other for proper functioning).

Beyond these quantitative parameters, it can be effective to develop a qualitative program, as well. This qualitative program can consist of the character of spaces, values of the organization, and messages to be communicated. By articulating carefully issues of function, expression and meaning, the qualitative program can mold the facilities of an institution to support its mission.

The program should be used to frame a project budget, which should be incorporated, along with the program, into the contract with the architect to assure clarity and accountability. As with all subsequent budgeting, this should be a comprehensive project budget, not just a construction budget. It should include construction costs, soft costs (all fees, furniture, and equipment), an allowance for contingencies (a figure that is gradually consumed or reduced during design and construction) and, ideally, a building operation and maintenance endowment. Such an all-inclusive project budget is the only way to avoid misunderstandings and surprises.

Assess capacity

Once you have defined the project, you can assess whether you have the resources to support it or a modified version of it. Most obviously there is the question of financial capacity. You will likely want to conduct a fundraising feasibility assessment to ascertain an achievable goal for a capital campaign. You may be willing and able to borrow a portion of the funds needed for the project. If so, there may be a variety of possibilities available to you, from bank lines of credit to state-sponsored revenue bonds. Under certain circumstances, you may wish to consider a loan from your own endowment.

Borrowing may seem a much more palatable option if the project offers significant revenue-generating potential, so you will want to quantify this possibility. A real-time, interactive financial model can be extraordinarily useful at this stage, allowing management and board to test and visualize consequences for a variety of scenarios.

In addition to financial capacity, you will also have to ascertain whether you have the available real estate. If you have an existing master plan, this may be a simple question that has already been examined. If you do not have a master plan, you should consider whether you can afford to work without one.

Who will be involved in the project?

Trustees and administrators who have not been involved in an institutional design and construction project often have no idea of the complex nature of the work required. By the time they find out, they may have incurred significant unnecessary expenses.

A project needs to be planned administratively as well as physically. Unless you are a large enough an institution to have an established facilities department staffed with project managers and support staff, additions to staff are likely for anything but the smallest of projects. (Costs associated with these new positions should be considered among the “soft costs” of a project.)

The primary need will be for a project manager with the experience and authority to manage the process, facilitate communication among all parties, make most of the operational decisions, and channel the decisions that require executive or board approval expeditiously and with clear analysis of options and repercussions. Some of these tasks may be beyond the skill set of a facility project manager; it generally helps to have a senior staff member act as project director to make or facilitate major decisions. Depending on the size of the project, you may need part- or full-time bookkeeping and accounting help, and staff support for the project manager. Depending on the skills and experience of the project manager, on large project an out-sourced “owner’s representative” may also be needed. (It is also possible to hire outside professionals for the entire project management function.)

Beyond the direct project staff issues, a major project also will affect the overall rhythms of management and governance in institutions not accustomed to building. It will be important to define clearly a hierarchy of levels for engaging executives and board committees in design decisions and tradeoffs, and especially in financial decisions. Once design and construction begin, delays in decision-making and changes of direction can be very costly. The more clear and streamlined the process the more likely you will stay on budget, on time, and happy with the results.

In my next post I’ll look at the project delivery decisions that we’ll cover in the webinar on November 18.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Integrated planning

“For every complex problem there is a simple solution; ...and it is always wrong.” Despite the truth of H.L. Mencken’s pithy observation, complex problems can often be factored out into components that can be addressed straightforwardly.

Nonprofits often turn to strategic planning when they see the need to examine what they do and perhaps make some changes. They may need to address a pressing problem or they may be looking to take advantage of a perceived opportunity or to adapt their services or programs to emerging needs or a change in funding. Some of the time strategic planning is precisely what is needed.

At other times, though, strategic planning does not offer the tools or format that can best address the critical issues. When planning objectives are poorly defined, and the tools are not well understood, frustration and failure are likely.

Strategic planning means different things to different people. We place strategic planning into the larger context of integrated planning. By articulating several different kinds of planning and orchestrating them into a comprehensive planning framework, nonprofits can use the concept of integrated planning to develop a more effective planning process and achieve more meaningful results.

At the core of integrated planning are strategic, program, and business planning, the why, what and how of the organization.

Strategic planning is essentially broad- based consensus-building around mission and goals. It draws all stakeholders into a discussion that reinvigorates the sense of communal purpose.

Program planning develops services, programs and delivery mechanisms, and identifies the resources needed to implement them. Much of this work needs to be dealt with very lightly in strategic planning, at the policy level. The details are the prerogative of the executive director and professional staff.

Business planning is as crucial for a non-profit institution as it is in a for- profit business. A business plan details the means by which the organization is to be supported and sustained, determines operational feasibility, and provides the staffing, financial, market, and operational details required. Business planning typically is the responsibility of the Executive Director, CFO, and the board.

There is clearly overlap among these areas of planning, but an understanding of the differences can make planning efforts far more effective.

A regular, integrated cycle of strategic, program and business planning cultivates a culture of planning, which focuses the efforts of the entire organization on critical strategic issues. A comprehensive approach to integrated planning encompasses a number of other areas that support improved management structures and more effective board oversight: organizational development, identity and branding, advancement, human resource, and technology planning, and facility planning.

For more on integrated planning, see and sign up for our next webinar on this topic. If the date for the linked webinar has passed, look for an announcement of our next round of Wednesday Webinars.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Untangling the Web

In conjunction with launching Critical Issues 3: Untangling the Web and Wednesday Webinars, this post initiates a series on nonprofit use of the Web. Because the possibilities are evolving so rapidly, we kept the Critical Issues piece at the conceptual level, reserving more specific comment for this blog.

In this post we’ll draw on several of the best bloggers on nonprofit Web topics to introduce the issues, and then touch on specific Web 2.0 functions that can advance nonprofit strategy.

First of all, if you have any doubts about the need to dive into social media, take a look at one of the many versions of the YouTube video, Social Media Revolution based on Erik Qualman’s Socialnomics. Once this has focused your attention, review some blog posts on how to approach social media:

You may want check out some commentary on social media use, such as Social Networks Are Red Hot, Web Sites Are Diddlysquat, or step back and think in even more basic terms about communication strategy, as itemized in Lindsey Patten’s Notes for Nonprofits.

Resources on the Web

Beyond the blogs mentioned above, here are some Web resources that can be enormously useful for nonprofits, in four categories:


If you are looking for specific tools for nonprofit governance and management, there are excellent resources at the Foundation Center’s Catalog of Nonprofit Literature, the Nonprofit Resource Center, BoardSource, Free Management Library, and Idealist.

For technology information, try TechSoup, Idealware, or ReadWriteWeb.

Two new knowledge resources for nonprofits:

  • IdeaEncore Network, “an online marketplace for the sharing of ready-to-use tools, presentations, course outlines, templates, and project plans within and between nonprofit organizations.” (Disclosure: as a beta tester, Synthesis Partnership played a minor, uncompensated advisory role in the implementation of IdeaEncore)
  • Nonprofit Webinars, a clearinghouse for webinars on issues of interest to nonprofits. (Another disclosure: Nonprofit Webinars is hosting my new series of webinars on nonprofit strategy, planning and organizational development, Wednesday Webinars).

One of the best ways to keep current on helpful blogs, webinars, and other media, as well as asking questions of and discussing timely issues with nonprofit colleagues, is LinkedIn. There you’ll find groups such as Nonprofit Professionals, Nonprofit Professionals Forum, Web 2.0 for Nonprofit Organizations, Strategic Planning for Nonprofits, and Start-Up Non-Profits. The daily or weekly digest e-mail of postings to these groups is a good way to manage the flow of information.


The omnipresent Google showcases its tools for operations and fundraising, along with ideas on how to use them effectively, at Google for Nonprofits.

Web 2.0 offers a growing number tools for collaboration, from scheduling meetings (Doodle) or registering events (Eventbrite) to holding them online (Tinychat, reviewed on readwriteweb: Tinychat Relaunches as Easy to Use Video Chat and Recording Platform).

Other free collaboration options include easy-to-use, feature-rich sites that go far enough beyond their origins as blog (Tumblr) and wiki (Wiggio) to provide overlapping opportunities to assemble virtual workspaces that fit various kinds of needs. Readwriteweb offers a guide to other Online Collaboration Tools.


Sharing starts with the capabilities you decide to embed in your website, blog, Twitter feed and/or Facebook page. (This might be a good place for me to acknowledge how much I’ve learned over the past few months from another seeker of social media communication truths, Lorrie Jackson, who has lots of helpful thoughts for nonprofits, especially schools, on her blog).

From Flikr to Tinypic, photo sharing sites have a variety of useful features to offer in conjunction with blogging and microblogging. The potential impact of video and slide show sharing is shown by some of my favorites: The Girl Effect, SELF’s Powering the Fight Against Hunger, and the Social Media Revolution video mentioned above. Get some ideas for using video and see more examples in Beaconfire Consulting’s blog post on How Nonprofits are Using Video Online: 20 Examples.

For webinars dimdim seems a good free or low-cost choice, especially for low-volume use. For a how-to introduction, look at Gayle Thorsen's Webinars for Nonprofits: Getting Started.

Do you have an e-mail newsletter? You should. Here is a brief compilation of e-newsletter tips and advice from a blog called Have Fun Do Good: 10 Nonprofit e-newsletter Resources. There are many providers of newsletter software, with various collections of features. For easy setup, a good feature set, and a cost-effective start for smaller-scale users—no monthly fee, and very low fees per address—take a look at Campaign Monitor.


Some very useful search shortcuts and power boosters:

The bottom line

While one very natural reaction to this flood of possibilities is that it’s way too much information, the fact remains that the means of effective learning, working and communicating are changing radically, and the way to survive natural selection is to evolve. We all need to learn enough about the new environment to be able to work differently and prioritize effectively.

More to follow

Webinars for Nonprofits

Wednesday Webinars, a new series of webinars on nonprofit strategy, planning and organizational development will be hosted at Nonprofit Webinars. Wednesday Webinars will be focused on skill-building and professional development, offering concrete tools and techniques that can be applied in any nonprofit. Get more information and register for the first webinar (September 16) “Cultivating Stakeholders: A strategy of inclusion for challenging times” for free (the standard fee via Nonprofit Webinars is $25).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Home Improvement

In my last post I looked at the movement supporting the elderly remaining in their homes as they age. Last weekend the New York Times reported on modifying houses as necessary for that purpose (Making Home a Safer Place, Affordably). So far so good.

However, also from the Times, "California reports that it has reduced energy consumption in new houses and commercial buildings by 75 percent over the three decades that codes have been in effect there." (A New Enforcer in Buildings, the Energy Inspector ).

So, if we age in our existing homes, how much damage are we doing to the environment? People who have just paid off their 30-year mortgage on a house built in the late 70s (or worse, the 50s or 60s) are using, on the basis of the California claim, 4 times the energy they would in a new building. Assume they have two or three times the space they really need, as well, and the inefficiency numbers go higher. Of course, if they were to downsize and sell the house—to a young family, say, who might need the extra space, the building's energy inefficiency would not change.

Back on the plus side, the embedded energy in our existing buildings (the energy it took to harvest, manufacture, transport, and construct them) gives preserving them an advantage over abandonment or demolition (using more energy) and replacement with new construction (embedding more energy again).

So how can we weigh all of the capital and operating numbers to minimize carbon emissions while accomplishing other goals (aging in place, preservation of older architecture)? With all of the news of foreclosures and virtual ghost towns of housing developments, the Times also reports "Construction starts on single-family homes... increased 14 percent for the biggest rise since December 2004" (Housing Starts Rise an Unexpected 3.6%), is there a comparable surge in renovation coming out of the stimulus funding?

One approach at the grassroots level is reduction of household carbon footprint. First we can take actions that make older houses more energy efficient in their infrastructure (insulation, windows and doors, plugging leaks) and systems (methods of heating/cooling, lighting, hot water, appliances). These actions will not get us to the energy efficiency of new construction, but when embedded energy is considered, they can cut the difference down to pretty reasonable numbers.

Then we can take additional lifestyle actions that further reduce our footprints to the extent that the percentage differences between good new construction and upgraded existing buildings involve much lower absolute emission numbers. These include home energy practices (the way we use heating/cooling, lighting, hot water, appliances [including electronics]) and lifestyle practices (how we travel, eat, recycle, buy or collect energy).

All this can seem a pretty daunting individual agenda, which brings me to the final point of this post. The Newton Eco-Team Project, of which I am an organizer, is part of a multi-community initiative in Massachusetts to reduce the household carbon footprint by 25%. It combines global warming education, saving money through reduced energy consumption, and building community through working together and sharing ideas. Altogether home improvement. Our website, which will offer resources identified and/or developed by all of the communities involved, is just now being created, at It should be live by next week.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Give me those old time solutions

The news hits us daily with political compromises to critical efforts: diverting stimulus money from where it will actually be most effective (e.g. from urban infrastructure to rural roads), undercutting health care reform into minimal impact, eating away at the prospect for carbon emission reduction.

All the more welcome, then, news of a positive trend. The Boston Globe (may it survive its own crisis!) reports today about 'intentional communities' providing services to the elderly to allow them to stay in their own homes even as their abilities to live fully independently wane. The specific organization profiled—Newton at Home, in my own city—has some interesting explanations, references and links on their website.

The idea is to reverse the long-time erosion of supportive community. As we baby boomers cope with the needs of aging parents--or even aging selves--we do so in a world very different from that of our grandparents. Rather than having family living together, or down the street, or across town, many of us have our siblings dispersed across the country or even the globe. While some have neighbors or religious congregations to fill some needs, that is rarely enough. The continuum of care in a single-campus-based retirement home to nursing home complex is the high-intervention (and high-cost) approach. But intentional communities such as Newton at Home resist the need for relocation/dislocation by bringing together local resources through local efforts in an intriguing reinterpretation of old supportive patterns. Volunteers build and maintain a knowledge base of available services, advice, and activities.

We need national policy to set the right conditions, but it's on the local level, in the end, that the behaviors that make change happen. Consumer decisions (and individual entrepreneurial behavior, including Newton at Home's focus on local resources) will have much to do with ending the recession. Atul Gawande's much noted recent New Yorker article pinpointed the heart of the health care dilemma in the attitude of local providers (we need more of the low-key, low-intervention approach of my late father, the no-nonsense general practitioner). And it is sobering to note that the average American household has twice the carbon footprint of a German household, which in turn has almost twice the footprint of the average Swedish household. I get those facts from another local effort, Newton Eco-Teams, which is working on a 25% reduction of household carbon emissions through simple and cost-effective community organizing.

Responsibility and community. Conservatism we can believe in.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nonprofit Identity and Branding

A piece on nonprofit brands in today's NYTimes ( called to mind some further thoughts. Non-profit organizations often overlook the value of creating a brand presence. Non-profit executives usually think more effectively about the content of their programs and services than about their marketing—either to potential users or to donors—and non-profits have generally been less than aggressive in making use of the brands that they have actually established.

There are, of course, gigantic exceptions, such as the Red Cross, the United Way, and the Salvation Army, but an argument could be made that while the first two have promoted their brands brilliantly, even the Salvation Army actually has not made full use of the enormous good will of its brand. Experience suggests that the universally familiar logo of the Salvation Army calls to the public mind a limited image of Christmas bell ringers, soup kitchens and religious charity, without building fully upon the quiet efficiency of an organization that offers a great variety of services and the lowest overhead cost of any large charity.

Defining identity, image and brand identity
The term identity often sounds like professional jargon when used to describe institutions. The more such an impression is stripped away, the more accurate (and useful) the idea. An institution’s identity is a lot like an individual’s. It refers to who you are in your entirety. As such, it is difficult to grasp or represent, but it is nonetheless essential.

The identity of an institution is expressed through actions, achievements, values, and goals. The challenge for an institution is to take this identity and represent it, internally and externally, for various vital purposes (admissions, faculty recruitment, fundraising, public relations, staff morale), and to convey it through strategies, messages, interactions, communications, and facilities.

Frequently confused with identity, image (the popular, surface perception of an institution) is one of the reflections of identity and its representation. Other outcomes of a well-articulated identity—somewhat more substantive—are a clear basis for institutional strategy, a more effective understanding of the achievability of the institution’s mission, increased revenues (through such means as programs, grants, public support, and fundraising), possibly cost-efficiencies, and a more secure future.

Brand identity, like identity, is often reduced to its use by graphic designers, to mean the last (and least) stage in developing brand identity, the logo, signage, and packaging. Even for consumer products, brand identity is about more than the cereal box or the candy wrapper—it is the summary term for all that distinguishes one product from another, real or imagined.

Why are these distinctions important?
Identity is the essential nature of the institution; brand identity is this essence viewed as a product to be marketed. Brand identity for non-profits offers a framework to communicate vision, mission, programs, and services. It is, essentially, the expression of an institution’s mission in the language of the marketplace.

The more robustly one defines brand identity to encompass institutional character, values, unique assets, and all of the messages to be conveyed by all of the means available to convey them, the more the idea can be used to tie together much of institutional strategy in a meaningful and powerful way. It can help an institution to focus on the most important issues in context, keeping in sight the broad strategic directions that all actions and messages should support.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Facilities and business plans

An article in the Times yesterday ("For Colleges Needing Cash, Summer’s No Longer a Quiet Season" takes a look at how colleges are using their campuses during the summer to generate revenue. While this is no doubt an intensifying trend, it is by no means new to the current downturn. For years nonprofits have been trying to address uneven distribution of facility use over the course of the year (colleges and schools), the week (also museums and theaters), and the day (also hospitals).

Further, focusing on facility use alone, the Times neglects to note some related opportunities. For example, a college or independent school can use summer programs not only for direct revenue, but also to
• build its market: by developing programs that appeal to prospective applicants, the school or college can increase its pool of appropriate and informed applicants, and improve its yield from acceptances.
• capitalize on its brand: institutional and faculty reputation can be an appealing draw for special programs for students and families unable or unlikely to enroll in degree programs.
• develop a virtuous cycle of brand promotion, revenue creation, increased applications and selectivity, and improvements in quality of facilities and offerings.

To pursue these benefits with optimal chance for success and minimal risk, an institution needs to develop a serious business plan. As the wisdom has it, "nonprofit" is a tax status, not a business model. All of the standard business planning elements of market analysis, business strategy, financial goals, resource requirements and organizational structure must be addressed.

Unlike strategic planning, which focuses on building consensus around mission, and program planning, which is based in the professional expertise of staff, business planning involves skills that often are undervalued in the nonprofit world.

A few years ago it seemed that every client wanted to include a revenue-producing conference center—or rental athletic space—into projects, on the Field of Dreams assumption.Business planning usually cast serious doubt on the financial promise of these ideas, but that did not always convince the leaders that they might not produce the revenue needed to support other facilities.

Supplemental revenue programs offer many potential benefits to a nonprofit, but only if they are evaluated objectively and rigorously.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Listen. Wholesale.

A few thoughts from my just-released e-letter, Critical Issues #2: The Secret Life of Surveys:

Says Who?
The leadership of an organization is likely to be more knowledgeable about the attitudes, interests and concerns of people like themselves than of those with a different stake in the organization and its mission. In membership organizations we have found that interesting issues pop out when we compare survey responses of new, medium-term, and long-term members; members of different ages and life stages, and members who participate primarily in different aspects of the organization, among other variables. This information can help the organization to tailor programs, services and communications to enhance value and retention.

Self Assessment
A board of trustees self assessment can be another good use of online survey tools. This can be an effective way to start a comprehensive planning process. A self assessment focuses trustees on the board's performance as a whole, and on their individual performance within that context. This prepares them to approach organizational planning with the requisite self awareness. There are good packaged self assessment tools available for license. Often special circumstances require a different set of questions, and a custom tool may be better.

Conducting a Survey
What is the advantage of using a third party to shape, conduct and analyze a survey? Expertise in constructing questions and analyzing answers will make it far more likely that your data will be meaningful, and that you will have used the survey most effectively to convey information and start a two-way conversation. A third-party e-mail address as the survey's source will get you more honest answers, allow for neutral filtering of raw data, and allow you to pursue non-responders to drive up the participation rate.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Is Salvation a Kroc?

A cousin of mine used to say that free advice is worth what you pay for it. While not terribly original, he was also wrong. Free advice is often way too expensive. When you're getting something for free it can be tough to hold the person offering it accountable for timeliness or follow-through. This can lead to serious complications. But that's another discussion.

The issue today is that there are also generous gifts that organizations can't afford to accept. Note the article in today's Times ( about Joan Kroc's enormous bequest to the Salvation Army. The gift of $1.8 billion was restricted to building 30 new community centers. Mrs. Kroc stipulated a sum equal to construction cost be placed in an endowment for operations.

We recommend to clients that they should raise 30 to 40% more than the construction cost of a new building just for a maintenance endowment. (Since the project cost of a new building may be as much as twice the construction cost, the maintenance endowment might be more like 20% over the total funds needed to build the building. For more about these issues see Understanding Facilities: Essentials of Planning and Design, at

But that says nothing about the operating costs for the building (utilities, housekeeping), the programs or services provided in it (staff, equipment, supplies), or administrative overhead. Mrs. Kroc's endowment bequest may or may not have been sufficient to cover these ongoing costs. Apparently the Salvation Army concluded they were not.

We did some work for the Salvation Army around the time of the bequest, in 2003. They had some big concerns then about the gift: news of such a gargantuan gift could dampen the sense of urgent need on the part of other donors; at the same time, the gift was not directed precisely toward the core programs and services of the organization, and could be as much a distraction as a benefit; the lavishness of the intended facilities could be a challenge to the austere brand identity (my words) of the Salvation Army.

While other nonprofits will likely not have to deal with gifts within even several orders of magnitude of the Kroc bequest, the lessons of it are important ones. Mission, not donors, should drive the direction of an organization. And the real costs of any venture need to be considered from the start.