Balancing the Mission Checkbook

The power of poker

There may have been a time when a nonprofit business model was more akin to solitaire. You have a fixed deck of cards, rules to play by, and based on the shuffle you can either make the game work or you’re just out of luck. The 21st century nonprofit game is more akin to poker. To quote James Bond, you’re not playing your cards; you’re playing the other players.

The odds in poker change with the number of people at the table. A pair of nines isn’t a great hand against six other players, but it can be a fantastic hand if you’re playing “heads up” – or one against one. Lots of other factors come into play (pun intended), including the experience of your opponent, how risk-adverse the other player may be, and more. Few things can impact the outcome of the hand more than just how many players are vying for the same pot.

So, if the game is going to be poker, how do nonprofits play the players, narrow the field of competitors, and never settle for less than a split pot?

  • Sort the deck. Nothing wrong with trying to increase the odds in this tortured metaphor (though yes, it is wrong to do it at a gambling table). Do your research and know what cards are coming up, and you can play a lot smarter. Talk to funding partners early and often. If they’re feeling good and see some aces coming your way, stay in the game. If they see your business line is nothing but off-suit low cards, then maybe it’s best to fold before you lose another ante on a lost cause.
  • Find a small table. If every other nonprofit is getting in to the same game, your odds worsen. Find your niche with less competition and improve your odds. Remember, the game of getting resources for your nonprofits isn’t roulette – not everyone can win.
  • Bluff now and again. This may be the least nonprofity (yes, that word is made up) advice in this list, but a little bluster can go a long way to ensuring your competition doesn’t get too thick. Loudly claim your niche, tell the world why you do it better than anyone else, and make everyone think twice about joining your double aces pot. Even if you’re really just holding a 9-10 suited.
  • Know the rules. The best advice to win is to understand what beats what when the cards are laid down. No sense betting the farm on your three of a kind if you know a straight has you beat. Your nonprofit can beat the odds by researching your model, your delivery and your audience, and delivering the winning combination based on real evaluation.

The Purpose and Prosperity Conference will give you a chance to think about an entrepreneurial approach to your nonprofit business model. Social enterprise needs to be thinking about risk and reward, but also the other players at the table. Come join us, the ante is pretty low, and great information is a sure bet.