Denise K. Spencer

To earn a private pilot license, students must start with basic instruction. This teaches them to fly under good weather conditions and visibility, and to trust their judgment based on what they see.

Pilots might move on to additional specialized education to fly under instrument flight rules. This offers meteorology and intensive technical training so pilots can fly entirely by referring to the instruments in their airplane.

Flying inside clouds, at certain altitudes, in all weather and at night requires this instrument rating.

Nonprofits with small budgets, a small staff and limited time often operate with their basic “pilot license” – that which is needed to operate legally, and based on familiarity and knowledge of the mission.

However, as organizations experience significant growth, we cannot always see all facets of the work as clearly as we once could. And we don’t know when a storm might arise.

This might require some specialized training to fly under “instrument flight rules.”

What does this mean? It means we need to become more adept at research and data collection. It means that to be more effective and efficient, we need to better understand what works and what doesn’t, and have the data to prove it.

It means that we can no longer simply use our experience, “gut feelings” and “seat of the pants” decisions to drive our work.

What might we need to know?

Why are donors attracted to us? Is it word of mouth? Or professional advisor recommendations? Or experience with us as volunteers? Or passion for our program of work?

Which of our marketing pieces or events are catching the attention of donors and which should be retired? What is causing success for competitors in the marketplace and have we adopted those techniques? Should we?

How impactful is our program? What is the satisfaction level of our clients? Are we better and more useful as specialists or generalists in specific services? How do we identify gaps in service and decide what should be added?

And, often the most difficult to determine: What should we drop from our program of work that is ineffective, better handled by someone else, or unsustainable financially?

The addition of any new or extended skill set requires an investment in both knowledge and tools. First, determining what exactly needs to be measured is important.

Organizations might need to invest in training and perhaps even additional staff. They might need to invest in new software and instruction in its use. They need to be willing to conduct surveys and hear the bad as well as the good. They need to be willing to change.

And they need to be ready for the storm to appear out of nowhere, for the darkness to arise before they have reached their destination and to fly through and above the clouds.

Live generously, and support your local nonprofits as they enhance their work through these investments so that ultimately both clients and community will be better served.

Denise K. Spencer is president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry.