Surviving, thriving, and six degrees of separation

More than 10% of the nonprofits are technically insolvent (i.e., their liabilities exceed their assets), including 18% in health and human services (in terms of service volume, these non-profits account for 8% and 11%, respectively). Many of these organizations are limping from payroll to payroll with less than a month of cash, effectively borrowing from vendors (by delaying payment) and/or dipping into restricted funds. These organizations have no capital for investment and little ability to consider a thoughtful restructuring given the lack of resources to fund the associated one-time costs. – Risk Management for Nonprofit


If the above description of life in the nonprofit sector rings familiar, you’re not alone. I hear variations on the sad theme all the time in my work with faith-based nonprofits. Accustomed to clawing their way to a balanced budget, financial vitality seems an impossible dream to leaders of many small to mid-size ministries. In its place, CEOs and board members accept the nightmare of perpetual poverty as their reality. They make peace with the organization’s sorry situation or worse, simply give in or give up.

Fortunately, there is a better way.

Notice I didn’t say easy. Instituting sticky change is hard work. It takes persistence, patience, planning, and faith to move the organizational needle in a positive direction and all that effort can put some people off. If your goal, however, is to bring glory to God through the work you do in God’s name, you dare not settle for less than thriving.

In preparation for a workshop presentation at The PURSUIT ’16 conference, I’ve identified six steps for taking a ministry organization (that could be yours) from surviving to thriving. I’d love for you join me at the conference. But knowing most readers can’t make the trip to London, Ontario in late April, here’s the short version of the longer presentation that I’ll give there.


1: The journey begins with a determination to replace the crippling scarcity mindset with a sure confidence in God’s amazing abundance. If your assumption is forever and always deficiency, you will never try for more. But shift your focus in the direction of possibility and trying for thriving becomes less daunting. Let me know if you agree (or not).

2: The next step is to believe that your organizations is worthy of thriving. It breaks my heart when leaders communicate through actions and plans that their organizations deserve a sorry existence. As God’s hands, feet, and emissary in a broken, hurting world, your organization is worthy of thriving. Believe it. Act like it.

3: It also helps to know what you mean by “thrive” – specifically within the context of your work and setting. With all due respect to Mr. Webster, there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of thrive — at least not within the nonprofit sector. I encourage you to spell out what thriving will look like for your ministry. Do so with precision and clarity and you’re on your way to real and lasting change.

4. And speaking of change, the fourth step in this journey requires a willingness to change what needs changing. It’s amazing how we cling to what’s always been, even when the same old, same old no longer works for us. Fix your trust firmly on God’s sufficiency and dare to change, to go for new over old.

5: With the foundational work done, you’re ready to map out a plan for getting from here (survival) to there (thriving). Planning need not be (in fact shouldn’t be) a complicated, time-consuming process. Simple is usually good enough. After identifying strategies most likely to generate your desired outcomes, plug in dates beside each activity, assign responsibility, and presto, you have your plan.

6: Finally, when acting on your plan, remember that not every available resource comes with a dollar sign attached to it. Commit yourself to maximizing everything already available to the organization – volunteers, community connections, wise friends, reputation, and mission, to name a few — to get done what God has called you to do.

Along with the authors of the report with which I began this article, I’m not ready to give up on the nonprofit sector or to give in to its mere survival — I hope neither are you. With God’s help and a committed team, you can do it. You can transform the mindset, mission reach, and Gospel witness of your organization.

So let the journey begin. And as you go, please keep me posted. I’m eager for stories from fellow travelers.

For other thoughts on building a thriving organization, see:

Beyond subsistence: 8 basic business principles for nonprofits (part 1)

Beyond subsistence: 8 basic business principles for nonprofits (part 2)

Death to BHAGs and other over-blown organizational rhetoric

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