Balancing the Mission Checkbook

Core Strength for Nonprofits: Financial Lessons from a First Time Marathoner

Over the past year I have been enthused by a newfound passion for long-distance running, which began innocently enough as a fifty-something guy cautiously running a mile and a half. While logging many miles since then, I’ve had time to reflect on parallels between my fledgling ardor for running and my long-established passion for nonprofit finance. Running buddies of mine, who are far more experienced in this realm, have taught me that developing core strength is a key to longevity in running. This lesson is true in the nonprofit world as well. Those nonprofits most able to sustain, grow, and expand their missions do so by building their organizations around a strong core.   

Since my inaugural run last year, my workout routine has expanded to 40 plus miles a week with my first marathon scheduled for this fall.  The lesson about the importance of a strong core has been vital. It turns out that many inexperienced runners get hurt when they charge ahead into their exercise routines without developing a solid foundation. Unaware of the need to strengthen essential, but lesser-known, muscle sets like abdominals, obliques, and intercostals, many novices run too far too fast, only to have their fervor ended prematurely by an otherwise avoidable injury.

The need for core strength is similarly crucial for nonprofit organizations. In order to best accomplish our missions, we need to develop a solid infrastructure on which to build our programs. The elements at the core of a nonprofit are its management, financial leadership, governance, fundraising capacity, technology, and human resources. Often described as administrative costs or overhead, we at Nonprofits Assistance Fund talk about them more broadly as part of “core mission support.”  Take a look at this nifty graphic we designed to help visualize the concept.

As a runner, in order to aid endurance and to protect against injury, I’ve been taught to spend time exercising the core muscle sets specifically. The 30 minutes of stretching, the crunches, push-ups, air bikes, planks, and leg lifts are in addition to my regular running routine, not at the expense of it. The time and effort I spend tending to these relatively obscure muscles is an investment in my long-term success and a complement to all the long miles. If I adequately build up my core muscles, there is less risk that at mile 15 or 20 of a long-distance race my major muscle groups like hamstrings and quads and calves will cramp or strain.

Likewise, in order to give our major program efforts the best chance for success, we must strengthen the core mission components listed above. Nonprofits shouldn’t shy from making the proper investment of capital and personnel in each. It is a false choice to think that we must funnel every available resource directly into our program initiatives at the expense of properly investing in core mission support.  We have a better chance of long-term success when we do both, girding each program with a strong core infrastructure.

To facilitate adequate funding of core mission support, it’s important to know how much of the core is being used by each program area. Calculating the true costs of each program gives us the insight to properly plan and manage the core resources needed for each program.  When each program supports its share of the core, the entire organization is strengthened and all of our programs better serve our mission.    

The mission work we do as nonprofits is too critical to risk stumbling or pulling up with an injury at a critical time. Building our core mission strength is fundamental to keeping our nonprofits healthy and sustaining our work over the long term.  Our mission work will have the greatest chance to transform the world for the better if we approach it as a marathon rather than a sprint.  

Photo CC

Curtis Klotz, CPA, has an education as far removed from his CPA as you can imagine (religion and women’s studies). He loves using his disparate background to translate and integrate nonprofit finance with program functions.