The Non-profit Revenue Tripod -- Risks and Rewards in Equipoise?

Last fall, I was attending a meeting of non-profit executives in which revenue growth was a major topic. You could tell from the conversations over breakfast that some executives came to the meeting with the idea of growing revenues by growing membership, while others were favoring expanding their meetings to generate new revenues. Still others were drawn to further developing their ancillary revenues (certification programs, services).

At the outset of the meeting, no one was really talking about growing their publishing business as a way to add revenues, grow membership, or even in relation to improving the other lines. Publishing was something they seemed to take for granted.

That all changed after a few presentations focusing on the concepts of risk, reward, reliability, and predictability, all in the context of current non-profit, economic, and demographic trends. 

  • Unlike conferences and meetings, a severe storm is very unlikely to dramatically interfere with a year's revenue projections in publishing. As conversations and questions emerged, each executive seemed to have a story of a major meeting being disrupted by a snow storm, ice storm, or hurricane, causing their organization to bear heavy losses and the long-term consequences of a meeting gone bad (extra marketing, venue reconsiderations, making amends with board members and major sponsors, and long memories). Publishing's lack of vulnerability to the vicissitudes of Mother Nature shelters organizations for a good amount of risk when it comes to reliable revenues.
  • Membership has been a riskier proposition for more than a decade, with the rewards shrinking as well. Again, these executives all pointed to their own experiences with membership growth and associated revenues, experiences which suggested exquisite price sensitivity (requiring heavy discounting of member dues) as well as difficulty appealing to non-members and struggles retaining current members. They also noted that publications -- journals, trade magazines, and online portals -- continue to serve as the primary membership draw, another reinforcement of the publishing value proposition they became more aware of as the meeting progressed.
  • Ancillary revenues that worked tended to resemble publishing revenues -- reliable, immune to weather, vital to the community or individual user, delivering tangential benefits to other categories.

Non-profits are stamped with a "mission," and often that mission consists of wording and beliefs that have been inherited from the 1950s or 1980s. The related bylaws structuring a governance body to support this mission require leadership to pursue membership or meetings, but not usually publications. This may be a source of some cognitive dissonance -- the organization's history is based on membership and meetings, but current revenues, membership appeal, and sustainability are more often built on the value of publications. The bylaws and mission have created constraints. It has been assumed that running these lines of business is a vital part of the mission, even if there are new risks now built into executing that mission in that way.

Stepping back and looking at the modern world and how organizations fit into the current and developing economy is a big step, often requiring frank assessment of the mission and not self-congratulatory, winking appraisals. In the framework of a stronger, more relevant mission, updated so it makes sense today, membership and meetings can still play a vital role, but success won't look the same as it did in 1959 or 1979. The dynamics between the three major legs of the non-profit society tripod -- meetings, membership, and publications -- have changed.

Some organizations have taken this step back and completed this examination, benefiting tremendously. I know of one large non-profit that recently completed a deep, strategic look -- which was not without some pain -- and is seeing its membership grow for the first time in decades, while also growing its publishing and ancillary activities. It was an act of reinvention and simplification. It was an acknowledgement that it's not 1990 anymore . . .

"Rinse and repeat" doesn't work in the current distributed, digital, dynamic information and personal services economy. Customers are facing a new reality, and responding as anyone would. New strategies have to be articulated, old habits re-examined, and new ventures used to probe for growth opportunities. Positions in the market, articulated decades ago, may no longer apply. The tripod we assumed would stand forever in equipoise on a flat surface may need to be rebuilt for steeper terrain.