What Makes a Nonprofit Evergreen

by | Jan 10, 2024

Roses are still blooming in my yard. Variegated pittosporum is glowing next to drab lantana stems that have died down for the year. What is slow to go dormant or even better is evergreen, provides hope of a forthcoming spring. 

It’s like the hope a donor has when donating to a nonprofit organization. Some nonprofits are evergreen-like plants that survive despite the cold. Even when donations are slim, they carry on, sometimes merely existing in survival mode, waiting for better times. How do they survive when donations slow down?

Years ago, I answered, “They survive because the need is great; they’re doing all they can and just need a few big donors to solve the funding problem.” Today is a different answer. Every nonprofit is an island. And the most evergreen nonprofits are built on islands of health and strength. 

The stronger a nonprofit, the more likely it will survive even the most difficult economic times and provide effective services. Here’s what the donor needs to know to identify healthy organizations with strong business practices and a heart to fulfill a needed mission.

Look for three critical factors: leadership by the board of directors, executive leadership and important work that needs doing.

Most donors give to a cause or a need. We assume all the right stuff is in place and the organization is evergreen. With our gift, needs are met.

What happens when organizations are not evergreen? They die. It is usually a very slow death over years, maybe even decades, but eventually, the doors are closed. For the most part, as donors, we hardly notice. We move on and make donations to other causes that are providing needed services.

In the mid-nineties, I interviewed for a leadership position at a local nonprofit. When asked what I thought about organizations barely surviving from one year to the next, I predicted several organizations operating at that time would find it difficult to survive financially into the new millennium.

I was as right as I was wrong that day. One of the organizations I named did indeed struggle over the ensuing years, closing its doors in mid-2015. My prediction was twenty years late. Over the next five years, three long-standing organizations folded under the umbrella of another organization.

Boards of directors and executive leadership made tough decisions based on the reality of the economic times and changing technologies. Their missions survived, but the services changed.

If you want to donate to the strongest and healthiest organizations, you need to answer a few questions.

Should we continue to give as long as an organization continues to provide services? Should we help them continue existing as long as the services are needed? How do we know if they are healthy and strong or merely surviving?

When a donation is not very large by your standards, the decision is all about trust. Trust that a service is needed and the organization is prepared to meet that need. But when a donation is larger, trust may not be enough to guarantee your donation will make a difference.

How do you know an organization is healthy? How can you be sure of strong board and executive leadership? How do you know if the organization is an island of strength and health?

It’s not enough that an organization is meeting a need. Without board and executive leadership, they will not likely be good stewards of your donation. Health and strength are critical to ensure long-term survival.

Healthy boards focus on ensuring the organization’s future by setting direction and actively raising funds needed for the work. If board members are not engaged in helping raise needed operating funds, the organization will always struggle.

Healthy, strong executive directors have reputations for strong management practices, dedication to the mission and a partnership with the board. Donating to an organization because their “heart is in the right place” is a risky decision when making a difference matters.

Identify evergreen organizations where your donation will build on their health and strength and increase your chances of giving well in a way that makes a difference.  

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