A short time ago, I posted my general thoughts on the notion of “sustainability,” detailing some of my issues with how performing arts organizations (and by extension, non-profits generally) have been using this concept. Or to be more accurate, how they are misusing the concept.
But this of course brings up another set of questions: specifically, how does a group determine if its programs are truly sustainable? Or in a broader sense, worth doing?
I’d like to suggest a tool I’ve used quite successfully in a couple of groups I work with: the Mission-Money Matrix. This is a simple graph that helps an organization determine if a program or activity is worth the investment of time and resources that an organization puts into it.
In essence, it provides a quick reference tool that allows you to evaluate a program’s sustainability in a holistic way, covering mission and finances within the overall framework of your organization’s capacity.
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The Mission-Money Matrix is a simple x-y graph, with the horizontal axis representing finances and the vertical axis representing mission.
To begin, let’s look at the horizontal axis—the money or profitability line:
This line represents a continuum where the far left signifies a net loss or low profitability, and the far right a net surplus or high profitability. Take any program or project your organization does, and place it on the scale of how much money it brings in for you.
But here’s the key—when evaluating profitability, you have to take a holistic view of the program and factor in its true costs. Yes, you’ll have to include those dreaded “indirect costs” that everyone attempts to sweep under the rug, and pro-rate such line items as rent, utilities, marketing, and evaluation expenses. Plus, you’ll have to honestly assess the financial impact of personnel costs including staff time spent on the program. This requires a good amount of data, so start lining up the numbers before getting started.
The key is to be honest and thorough. There is no right or wrong answer—you are simply looking for an accurate assessment of how much money you can reasonably expect a program or project to bring in when all expenses are accounted for.
The other axis rates how closely the program or activity fulfills the organization’s overall mission:
This line can be fairly easy to chart, but to do so the organization has to engage in consistent, clear review of its programs. You can’t simply say “this meets our mission”—you have to take an honest look at each program and determine the extent that it meets your mission. There are a number of criteria an organization can use for this. Co-author Steve Zimmerman of Spectrum Nonprofit Services, for example, suggests that organizations rate each program using four criteria, drawn from the following suggestions:
- Alignment with core mission: How closely does this program align with our core goals? Some programs may be excellent, but not as central to our mission.
- Excellence in execution: Organizations are simply better at delivering some activities than others. A program may be important to our mission, but we may not have the right skills or financial resources to implement it with excellence. This is a nice way of separating planning from execution.
- Scale: How many people does each program affect?
- Depth: How deep an intervention or contact does each program provide?
- Building community or constituency: How does this program contribute to building, for example, a broader movement beyond our organization? Allow for greater networking or partnerships in the community?
- Fills an important gap: If a program were to go away, would your constituents be able to go across the street to another agency or would they have nowhere to go?
Choose the indicators most relevant to you, and rate each criteria on, say, a 5-point scale (1 being low, 5 being high). Then tally the composite scores—this provides the overall mission score, which can be used for the graph.
The final step is easy. Based on a program’s relative profitability and mission impact, place it on the graph. To get a better sense of your organization as a whole, put each major program on the graph to see where you’re spending your time.
As you can see, the grid falls naturally into four basic boxes; we can give each of these four boxes an icon to serve as a quick visual guide:
Clockwise from the upper right corner, these boxes are: High Mission-Low Profitability, High Mission-High Profitability, Low Mission-Low Profitability, and Low Mission-Low Profitability. Each of an organization’s programs or activities can be placed in one of these boxes.
For High Mission-Low Profitability, the short hand descriptor is a heart. These are the programs like free concerts for at-risk students—programs done because they are important and embody the mission, but rarely bring in revenue. They may represent a net drain on resources, but this isn’t necessarily bad. Keep them, but see if costs can be contained or offset elsewhere.
High Mission-High Profitability programs are your stars… they do everything right. Focus your time and attention on these high performers, as they represent your best chances to keep your organization truly sustainable.
Programs that are Low Mission-High Profitability are money trees for an organization. They play a vital role, bringing in much-needed cash that helps offset those programs bringing in less revenue. A prime example of this is a fundraising gala—the mission is still present (or is should be), but the overall goal of the gala is to bring in financial support and financial supporters. Grow and tend these programs, as they will give you the resources to support other activities, but also consider ways that the mission can be brought in more explicitly.
And finally, the Low Mission-Low Profitability box. The stop sign, if you will. This is dangerous territory for a program, because it isn’t producing anything. All organizations have them, and they serve as distractions for more productive work. Maybe these are legacy programs—the programs that have existed for so long that they are now done simply out of habit. Maybe they are pet projects of a former or current leader. An organization should have a hard conversation with itself and determine whether these programs should be improved… or dropped altogether.
To be clear, there is no “right” answer for where a program goes—just an honest one. The graph is used to help provide insight into the work that your organization does, and frame that information for further discussion. Ideally it should serve as a reference for determining where to allocate time and organizational resources, so that you can maximize your results and impact on the community over the long term.
In other words, to be truly sustainable.
One thing that I would add, particularly if you are having one of those hard discussions around a low-performing program from the stop sign area of the graph. First, give yourself permission to sunset an underperforming activity or initiative. But also keep in mind that this underperformer might still be a good program with potential, but something might be holding it back. Is the problem one of execution? Could tightening up the goal or objective help? Narrowing the focus? Can you move an underperforming stop sign toward the star box?
It can be done… but to do so you must first improve its mission rating, as part of a strategy of attracting more money. That will give the program a purpose, and help build excitement and energy around it from within the organization and from the outside. Make sure you find its optimum target audience and really speak to them. This is what will attract financial support—the excitement, the clear rationale, the need for the program.
Trying to go the other way—simply trying to make it more profitable and hope that at a later date it will somehow connect with your mission—will never work, and usually ends up being a drain on the organization. After all, if a program or activity is not helping you achieve your mission, why do it at all? Plus, in my experience chasing after money rarely works, as people can see right through it.
People won’t support you simply because you need their support, but because you inspire them.
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In the end, the Mission-Money Matrix is a powerful tool that can help a non-profit assess its work… it is in essence a graphic representation of the organization’s business model. By laying out its whole scope of activities, an organization can see how it accomplishes its mission, and plan more effective ways of allocating time and resources.
In short, the matrix can help an organization be sure it is truly sustainable.