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Today more and more nonprofits and organizations are competing for less and less dollars of foundation and government grant support. While nonprofits need to stay true to their mission and vision, they also, to win those precious dollars, need to frame themselves within the context of what their community needs.

Non-profits need to market themselves as serving their community – otherwise they are just existing within their community. If they have a private endowment from their founders under which they can operate, they could just ‘exist’. But if that endowment runs out, and/or their community cannot support them via major gift donors, they will need to start serving.

Serving a community means meeting its primary needs for sustenance and sustainability. Any nonprofit or community organization can identify if it is serving and, if not, how it might be able to build on its strengths to do so.

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1. Identify community needs

First, your organization should ask, “What are the primary needs in our local and broader community?” Many times you already know or can easily identify them and back them up with data from the US Census, community foundations, or universities. It is good to check, however, because sometimes we suspect problems that are not that problematic or are completely unaware of problems next door!

Make a list of three assumed community problems. For example, let’s say your organization is a private school in a rural area, and you suspect rising poverty, pollution, and drug use – write those down.

Research each and see what kind of data you’ll find. The US Census, the local newspaper and library, public records and conducting surveys can all be useful.

Rank the problems as best as you can in context of your organization’s mission. This could be tricky! A school should probably rank poverty higher than environmental degradation because its mission is to prepare youth for the future, but if that school’s population relies on natural resources for its livelihood, it might rank pollution higher.

Your organization should now have a qualified, researched list of community needs!

2. Find the gap

Your organization should ask, “What are other organizations like us already doing to address this community problem, and what else could be done?” This step is critical so that you can set itself apart from the rest and make yourself necessary.

Make a list of other organizations similar to yours and other organizations that are serving the same population as yours and research their programs and impact.

Research state and national standards and compare the population in the local community to a broader region or the state.

For example, you might already have that information, or you might look up the US Census information for your county. Then, since you’d be serving children and potentially parents, you want to look up what programs are available for family poverty alleviation as well as for kids across the state or in communities similar to yours.

3. Apply your nonprofit to serve

Your organization should ask, “How can we make our work better serve – how can we use the programs we already have or amend our programs to fill the gaps?” This step requires identification of your best strengths and a relational analysis of those strengths to gaps in alleviating community need.

Make a list of your nonprofit’s goals that might address the problems identified. Your school in a rural area, for example, 1) is providing afterschool programs with food for poor students; and 2) is hosting a summer camp that helps working mothers supplement day care costs.

• Look at Step 2’s information and ask, “Is anyone else already doing this and doing it better than us?” If so, you want to focus on a different program or amend your program.

Your school might have found that the local YMCA, Girl Scouts, and Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter also have afterschool programs offering food. However, only the Y has a summer program for kids and it is expensive with only a few scholarships offered. Hence your school’s summer camp has the best opportunity to fill a gap.

• Next ask, “How can we make this program even better to market it specifically as filling a gap in community need?” Ask what outcomes could be accomplished within the framework of your mission.

Your school for example could augment your summer camp with measures to reduce poverty past the immediate “supplement daycare costs” goal, such as job skills training, youth leadership initiatives, and tutoring. Those could be sold as long term outcomes of a “better prepared job ready workforce.”

By following these three simple steps – identifying real needs, finding the gap in service within the community, and then filling that gap with a strong program – your organization can frame the already good work you are doing around what your community actually needs, or you can identify if you need to change your program goals to better focus on serving. Not only will you win more grants this way, but you will also make yourself more relevant to the constantly changing economic and social problems around you!

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