The Constipated Nonprofit: When Nothing Moves

by | Jul 25, 2018 | Strategic Planning

By Mandy Pearce, Michael Webb and Marie Palacios


There are four foundational elements to any successful nonprofit…

And it is important to keep all of these areas moving or your risk a constipated nonprofit!
  1. An engaged, educated, working board of directors.
  2. A solid, realistic budget.
  3. Effective program design(s).
  4. A strategic plan.


Whether you are considering starting a nonprofit, or you work in an existing organization, these elements are the same. If one of these elements doesn’t exist or hasn’t been well-developed, you might have a constipated nonprofit.

Let’s take a car for example. Routine maintenance is needed for a car to perform at its best. The oil filter doesn’t seem like a huge part, but it is integral to the running of a well-oiled machine (pun intended). If the oil filter isn’t changed, it can become clogged. When it becomes clogged the car starts to make noises and overheat.

If there is not enough oil circulation within the motor, eventually the motor will crack and break. That seems like a lot of trouble for this one little part, right? A bit of care and attention during the lifetime of a vehicle could help it run smoothly and provide reliable transportation.

Nonprofit organizations are no different.

You want to avoid a constipated nonprofit. You should focus on the basic components of any well-oiled nonprofit that will allow it to run more smoothly. There is always maintenance to perform, but if done routinely, you avoid becoming a constipated nonprofit. Much like a car, nonprofits can’t focus on one part at a time. Managing several parts at the same time will ensure the whole machine works well.

The creation, education, and engagement of your board of directors are some of the most vital aspects of a successful organization. Note: Reach out if you need Funding for Good to help customize a strategy around Board Solutions for your organization.


First, let’s look at your board of directors. 

Here are 10 steps you can begin to weave into your policies/procedures to help strengthen your board and organization.

  1. Recruit new/qualified individuals.
  2. Screen prospective board members.
  3. Educate board members.
  4. Nominate.
  5. Approve nominees.
  6. Cultivate board members.
  7. Engage board members.
  8. Strengthen board leadership.
  9. Increase the impact of individual board members.
  10. Implement a succession planning process.
To learn more about each of these steps, check out our blog:


Next, let’s look at the budgeting process.

As we begin the 3rd quarter many organizations are working on budgets and mapping out their development plans for a successful year-end and intro to next year. This is also a step that should occur at the inception of any business, including a nonprofit. Remember, “nonprofit” is your tax ID status; it should NOT be your business model. I encourage you to:

  1. Have diversified fundraising streams in your development plan.
  2. Do not write grant dollars into your budget unless you have a multi-year grant or a confirmation of funding from a foundation.
  3. Be realistic about your goals and their attainability and have a strategy for how you will bring in the dollars for each income stream.
  4. Work with your board, staff, and accountant to create a workable and realistic budget.
  5. Start reviewing historical data NOW to create a successful plan for next year.
  6. Review your budget monthly to see if you are on track to reach your goals. If adjustments need to be made, amend your budget and have the board approve a revision.
Now let’s look at program design.

Believe it or not, program design helps you avoid becoming a constipated nonprofit? It doesn’t seem like a critical part of the success of an organization right off the bat, but it is! Programs are often key to accomplishing the organization’s mission and tend to excite and engage the greater community.

“People don’t want to fund your existence, they want to fund your impact (Beth Brodovsky).”

Your impact, more often than not, comes from programming.

“Programs are ongoing services/endeavors that are designed to create long-term impact (Marie Palacios).”

Take for example a quality after-school program. The program should not exist simply to help children complete their homework or keep them out of trouble for a day. A strategic program is designed to include resources to ensure that each child develops emotionally, socially, and academically so they are equipped to graduate from high school and continue on to higher education or a fulfilling career.

In theory this sounds fairly simple. That said, many great program “ideas” turn into “failures” because theory and application never meet.

The following 10 tips around program design are the beginning of a successful organization that will continue to grow and serve the community:

  1. Never EVER create a program in order to chase after funds.
  2. Evaluate your community and available resources BEFORE designing a program.
  3. Don’t duplicate. Be willing to partner to bridge gaps.
  4. Collaboration NOT competition between organizations and programs.
  5. Evaluate successful programs before designing your own.
  6. Ensure that your program design is realistic AND specific to reaching your goals.
  7. Who is doing what? – Avoid the temptation to say “current staff will assume responsibility for….” as an excuse for hiring new/needed program staff. Make sure your current staff has the time, energy, and expertise to effectively run the program if that is the intention.
  8. Identify your target population.
  9. Establish systems for tracking impact.
  10. Share your impact with the community for reporting.

Learn in-depth about each program design step here:

Last, but not least, we get to strategic planning.

We hope you are beginning to see how all these pieces work together. The success of one depends on the success of the others. This “movement” of all the working parts helps you avoid becoming a constipated nonprofit. I always tell my development coaching clients that a well-written and developed strategic plan is the MOST important part of a fundraising toolkit. Without a strategic plan, many conversations are unproductive, many grants are incomplete, and many potential planned givers are uninterested because there is a significant lack of accountability and planning on the part of the organization. If you don’t know where you want to be and you can’t map out how you are going to get there, why would folks want to get in your boat headed for an undetermined destination?

As noted by my friend and co-worker Amy Clinton, a facilitated and participatory process that pays close attention to each of the following steps can help you create a dynamic, responsive, realistic, and inclusive road map to your goals (a.k.a., a strategic plan).

  1. Pre-Planning (planning to plan)
  2. Defining the Purpose & Focus of the Event/Plan
  3. Getting the Right People at the Table
  4. Closely Examining the Internal & External Environment
  5. Creating a Practical & Shared Vision
  6. Honest Identification and Analysis of Barriers
  7. Creating Strategies to Overcome Barriers
  8. Developing Substantial Actions with Measures and Implementation Plans

The greatest benefit of following these steps is the value of sitting in conversation together over a shared vision of the future. In pairs or small groups and in the larger group, a well-facilitated discussion can unlock and uncover new ideas, generate energy and intention around a common understanding, and clear out conflict when we are committed to a shared vision. This doesn’t happen by reading documents around a table or those circulated over email. This happens when we commit to the conversation together.

Each of these elements (board, budget, program design and strategic plan), is vital to the ongoing success of nonprofits. I encourage you to do a review of each element within your own organization and see what might need a tune-up. Once you get things in good working condition, keep the maintenance regular so your organization doesn’t become a constipated nonprofit.

Best of luck as you continue to grow for good.

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