Guest Post from Richard Brewster, Executive Director of the National
Center on Nonprofit Enterprise (NCNE) in Alexandria, Virginia. Register for the Meeting Mission by Making Money webinar series today!
My four-year-old grandson is obsessed with dinosaurs. He is, as a result, very knowledgeable about them and the last time we discussed the subject, he identified 13 species. I used to think he was just precocious (I would, wouldn’t I?) but, when I met some of his friends, it became clear that a large number of children have advanced knowledge of these reptilian relics. I’ve learned to expect expressions of pity and derision if I can’t distinguish a Tyrannosaurus from an Allosaurus or a Pterodactyl from a Pteranodon.
So what does this have to do with nonprofits and earned income? Well, if you posed that question to a nonprofit like the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the answer would be that the large number of children with this hunger for all things dinosaur presents two brontosaurus-sized opportunities.
First, the interest provides an opening to meet a need for education. The Museum’s mission is “To create extraordinary learning experiences across the arts, sciences, and humanities that have the power to transform the lives of children and families.” Dinosaur fever is the entry point for the exploration of biology, paleontology, geology, climate change, evolution, and much more. And sure enough, the museum sets out to meet that need. One example is the Dinosphere, one of the largest displays of real juvenile and family dinosaur fossils in the United States. That’s free of charge.
But there is a second opportunity: to meet mission and make money. With Dinosaur Digs, parents can take their children on Family Digs in South Dakota to excavate fossils under the supervision of trained paleontologists. Adults can spend five days doing the same and, soon, teachers will be able to go on digs in order to learn more about dinosaurs so they can better teach their students. All three groups are charged for this experience, adults, for example, paying $825 or $1,000 for a five-day trip.
These offerings sell out and one reason they do so is because they fulfill three conditions of success for any nonprofit seeking to earn revenue.
They fulfill a real and substantial demand: Sufficient numbers of people are willing and able to make it worth the while of the nonprofit to produce a service. This sounds stunningly obvious, but the nonprofit field is littered with the remains of failed nonprofit business plans that didn’t first establish that there really were people who wanted their great idea enough to pay for it.
They leverage a distinctive and critical asset of the organization. In the case of the Museum, that would be their knowledge and expertise in paleontology and access to the site in South Dakota.
They are mission-related. Even in the case of the adult trips to South Dakota, the Children’s Museum is contributing to the achievement of its mission. The adults may have children (or will in the future), and will (hopefully) become enthusiastic advocates for the Museum’s work. There used to be an assumption that the most successful earned income activities would be unrelated to mission, but research over the last ten years has shown that a nonprofit is most likely to succeed if it sticks to what it knows.
We’re exploring how nonprofits can meet these and the other conditions of earned income in the webinar series, Nonprofit Entrepreneurship: Meeting Mission by Making Money, beginning on June 5, in which you’ll learn how to tackle all aspects of this critical form of income success. If you’d like to learn more and register, click here!
Meanwhile, I’d better get back to the Wikipedia section on those dinosaurs.
This post was originally featured in Philanthropy Front and Center - Washington, DC.