While nonprofit organizations are purpose-driven rather than profit-driven, they have a great deal in common with their for-profit counterparts.
"We may be governed by a different part of the tax code and exempt from some—but not all—taxes, but we are businesses, too," says Rick Cohen, chief operating officer at the National Council of Nonprofits.
Like other types of businesses, successful nonprofits outline their goals and how they will achieve them in a written document known as a business plan.
A nonprofit's business plan is similar to that used by a for-profit entity but has key differences. Here's what you need to know about how to write a nonprofit business plan.
Nonprofit business plan elements
For-profit business plans detail what a company does, how it does it, who does it, and how it pays for it. A nonprofit business plan outlines that as well but approaches parts of the process differently.
The biggest difference is that nonprofit organizations focus on the problem they want to solve and how to fund programs and activities that help do that.
"Nonprofits have the added burden and opportunity of impact in their business plan," says Sara Gibson, co-founder and CEO of 20 Degrees, a consulting firm serving nonprofits. "The sector doesn't measure worth in profit—it is measured in lives and in change created. That has to be part of the plan."
Typical nonprofit business plans feature many of the following elements:
- Executive summary
- Mission and goals
- Community impact
- Products, services, and programs
- Organizational structure and staffing
- Market and competitive analysis
- Fundraising and development
- Financial plan
Fundraising section is essential
For-profit businesses might be funded initially by owners or outside investors, but the ultimate goal is usually self-sufficiency through sales. Many nonprofit organizations aren't structured or created to generate income to support their community services, so fundraising is key.
"It is critical for the sustainability of nonprofits that they are constantly being connected with grants and funders who will provide the financial resources needed for these nonprofits to continue offering quality and valuable assistance to the communities they serve," says Fernando Urbina, director of outreach for ImmigrationHelp.org.
Mikko Sperber, managing partner and founder of Fundamental Strategy, recommends taking on a for-profit business mindset when writing the fundraising section of the nonprofit business plan.
"If you build your plan to have a budget surplus at the end of your year, you then have the capital to reinvest in growing your organization and furthering your mission," he says.
The organization's communication and marketing strategy feeds fundraising goals, so be thoughtful about that piece when writing a nonprofit business plan.
"If no one knows who you are, then no one will be donating to your cause," says Mike McKnight, director of operations at Racing for Orphans with Down Syndrome.
Keep it real
When outlining your business plan, be realistic about fundraising and other revenue streams, then match your budget to your fundraising goal, not the other way around. "In worst-case scenarios, fundraising numbers are plugged into a budget after the programmatic expenses are figured to just offset them without a realistic plan," Sperber says.
Matching your budget to your fundraising goal is especially important because of the organization's impact on the community served, says Cohen, whose organization offers nonprofit business plan resources on its website.
"The worst thing a nonprofit can do is get to a place where people are counting on their services, but then need to close their doors, leaving those people in the lurch," he says.
To ensure your organization's business plan properly supports your mission, consider consulting with professionals such as nonprofit advisers and attorneys specializing in this sector.
Keep your nonprofit business plan handy, too. It's your organizational blueprint, but you'll also need to update it as circumstances or market conditions change.