How Can Nonprofits Remain Relevant and Create New Value?

Moving From Value Disconnect to Value Opportunity

A hard hit to the gut for nonprofits is the fear of losing relevance. It manifests in the community as apathy, disconnection, and disengagement; from the mission of the organization, from the once popular projects that took place; from the organization leaders who used to magnetize audiences with a strong vision. All humans disengage from what does not provide them benefit and then re-prioritize their precious time and resources. This is value disconnect.

In the nonprofit sector, we know what value disconnect looks like.

It shows up in reduced or loss of funding, lower recruitment and retention numbers, and board, volunteer, staff turnover. Verbalized, if someone were to ask “does organization X matter and why?” and the reply is “not really,” “they used to be,” or “well, I’m not really sure,” that is value disconnect.

How does this happen and what can be done to change course?

The Social Impact Sector and the Complexity of Relevance

Before we jump into what to do when you find yourself sinking, we want to sufficiently address the complexity of “loss of relevance” and “loss of value”.

It is one of the primary reasons why we do this work and why our clients seek our support. Relevance; who gets to start, stay, thrive, or disappear in the social impact sector is very complex.

Does relevance mean that you deserve to exist (and who is making that call)? Does it mean that your mission serves a purpose like no other organization or in a very complementary way? Does it mean that your organization makes sense in the current landscape?

We hear some say that the goal of the social impact sector should be to become irrelevant and go out of business. This would mean that the social problem for which the organization was created, is now resolved. It would mean that our environment and animals are protected; and people in our communities are safe, fed, housed, educated, empowered, and thriving. However, we are a long way away from reaching this Utopian expectation.

There is much work to be done, much of it residing in the areas of policy, advocacy, economic development, and the dismantling of racist, classist, and sexist structures that fight to maintain status quo. Even if one step in this long process of change is successfully accomplished, there are many more paths to conquer.

There can also be a push for organizations to stay open because of legacy, history, ego, power, brand, resources, and other significant community drivers. This is where you hear, “but we are X nonprofit and we have been around for so many years”, “we have served X thousands of  people”, or “we are the largest.”

In this age of disruption, most established institutions including government, education, and religion, are being entirely challenged and re-designed.

The social impact sector is not immune or independent from these changes.

Where, in the past, statements of legacy or size may have been met with a response like, “oh my, you are right, carry on,” now might hear more of a “so what?” and maybe a not-so-polite “watch your back.” There are numerous U.S.based and international nonprofits with 50-150 year legacies and hundreds of millions in assets being disrupted and scrambling to pivot.

Across the strata of smaller and mid-size nonprofits there is tremendous discussion of too many nonprofits, too much duplication, and not enough collaboration or sustainable resources. Some would say that due to outdated business models, these legacy and smaller organizations need to close their doors or merge.

In some cases this may be the solution, but we also argue that these at-risk organizations, both small and large, can undergo a cultural transformation that will enable them to thrive in new ways they never expected.

Staying Relevant and Creating Value Means Being Courageous

Ultimately to us, being relevant means that you are continuously creating new value in the eyes of those you serve. It means that when your stakeholders are asked if your organization matters or is important, they shout, “Absolutely, and let me tell you why!” That is the type of passion you want to create and nurture. Relevance is an outward perception driven by value connection.

Creating value and keeping up with the speed of change is about having the courage to pause when you notice that things aren’t working. When the passion is dwindling and the response to the question of relevance is more “meh” than “hooray!” it is time for deep reflection, learning, and behavior change. You must stop, look, listen, and learn when you see the world shifting around you.

It is courageous to pause and it is courageous to go beyond the pause point to drive action and behavior change, shifting your organization to a culture of value creation.

How to Turn Value Disconnect into Value Connection

1. Stop Avoiding the Challenge and Dig In

Often we are so busy that large challenges and symptoms of value disconnect go ignored while we plan our next event, run programs, engage donors, and put out fires.

We see many organizations finally make progress on challenges, some after just a two-day Bootcamp, that have plagued them for years. The key is to pause and work in new ways by first engaging the courageous minds that exist (often untapped) within your organization.

Form a diverse team of 3-5 individuals from across your organization. Reach across silos and up and down layers of hierarchy. A hint is to look for “troublemakers”, those staff that love to ask questions, challenge your work, and are hungry to dig in and try something new.

When you have that one identified challenge selected and your team formed, work together to make a list of all the stakeholders you serve in your organization that are connected to that challenge. Next, go deeper and break down each of these stakeholder groups by their behavior.

Let’s say your challenge is that donations are dropping and you need to increase your number of gifts by individuals. Instead of learning more about a broad segment of donors as one total group, break them down into smaller segments by their giving, such as new donors, recurring donors, lapsed donors, major gift donors, and donors that have made a planned gift.

The needs, wants, expectations and concerns for each of these groups will vary. Pause and examine the ways in which you treat each of these groups with one-size-fits-all solutions.

One of the most significant and recurrent learnings we have had in this work is that one-size-fits-all will not create deep value or impact. Think about the experience of creating a passionate donor within each of these categories and how that might look different.

2. Figure out what you need to learn

Look at your existing data.

For donors, look at their giving over time, their gift amounts, and response to appeals. For clients, look at your numbers and their participation and service use long-term. Look at the length of the time your employees remain engaged and dedicated to your organization. Look at your board term limits, turnover and composition.

For any stakeholder related to a challenge, you want to truly dive into understanding the value they crave so that you can create a deeply connected experience. If you lack data for your stakeholders, this is very important learning and a great challenge to incorporate into a future focus.

Ask yourself the following questions about each of your stakeholder groups. This will form your hypothesis for how you think they view your challenge and it is a great starting point:

  1. What value do I create for this stakeholder? What problem(s) do I solve for them? How do I make their life easier, better, enhanced? Note: you may learn along the way how you unintentionally make their lives harder so be prepared to hear what you don’t want to hear.

  2. How do I create value? What activities do I provide that make them feel appreciated, engaged, and excited about the mission?

  3. How do I measure this value? How do I know that my intentional activities are reaching their intended impact and getting people to passion?

If you answer any part of these questions with “I think”, “Maybe, we”, or “I don’t know”, that is a delicious beginning to your learning journey.

Write down what you need to learn in those shakier areas and go find answers!

3. Go listen to your stakeholders

The easiest way to learn about what people are thinking, what problems or obstacles they are facing, what excites them, what disappoints them, what their vision is for the organization, is to ask them directly. The best way to do this is with one on-one-conversations.

Our experience has also taught us repeatedly that the perceived expedience of focus groups and online or paper surveys do not support the learning you need to create deep value and impact.

Your goal is to learn about their view of the organization, and of their engagement and experience. You want to find out about the best experience your stakeholder has ever had with your organization and you want to be courageous enough to learn about their worst. Be open to listening and pulling out nuggets from which you can build upon and test.

Make a list of names of people that fit into your specific stakeholder group, contact them for interviews, draft a brief script for how you will introduce your conversation, and have a short set of questions that really get to the areas that you need to understand a little bit better about what they like, and don’t, what they need, want, and envision.

4. Test something new and co-create

Once you hear from multiple stakeholders, you will have a sense of common themes and ideas that will crop up repeatedly. Once you have this amazing new knowledge and validation, brainstorm bold and high impact solutions that would actually solve their problem or create value from their perspective, and dive into testing new potential solutions.

We test with stakeholders we serve before we build in order to reduce waste in the value creation process. With quick, rapid experiments, where you identify and put to the test the riskiest assumptions of a potential solution, you will know exactly the ways that you can create value.

5. Repeat, repeat, repeat

Apply a new way of working within your organization that puts value creation as your number one priority. Jump off the hamster wheel that at times becomes social impact work to ask these difficult questions. What we have seen time and time again is that when you focus on solving problems for those you serve, in turn, you solve the problems you face as an organization.


We are all so busy that we forget to invest in the future existence and impact of our organizations. There is absolutely no evidence that life is going to slow down. Organizations that will thrive into the future address challenges early and often, and create value at the speed of change.