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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Making Much of Little: Turning Untapped Assets Into Gold – Your Ingenious Nonprofit

Karen Eber Davis

Logo - Karen Eber Davis ConsultingIngenious solutions. People devise amazing ways to earn income or ingenious solutions. Many of their ideas can be adapted to your setting. This article shares the Asset-on-Hyperdrive technique that I encountered while writing 7 Nonprofit Income Streams.

In a nutshell, the Asset-on-Hyperdrive technique:

  1. Identifies assets such as volunteers, donations, and unused seats.
  2. Explores each asset for its potential to solve a key challenge.
  3. Expands specific assets by using multiple tools and measuring results.
  4. Reaps benefits in your triple-bottom line: growth of community support, income, and mission.

To imagine how this works, think of each of your asset as a garden hose. Left unattended, water trickles out of them. Turn the knob. Receive a flow of water. Twist the knob all the way. You’ll fill your whole yard. 

Asset Alchemy

When Michael Pastreich joined the Florida Orchestra, the orchestra faced dwindling audiences. They needed to fill seats—empty seats were an asset with potential. To fill them, Michael had plentiful tools. He could reduce prices. He could add shows. He could invite musicians from afar. He could reach new audiences by working with unusual partners such as the hockey team. He could offer rock music played by an orchestra. Each was like twisting the knob to get more flow. Shows began to sell out. To meet demand new shows were added. Over five years, the subscriber base grew by 29 percent and audiences went way up. By filling seats and providing amazing music, the Orchestra filled the community with music. This inspires donors. It shows the community that the orchestra is vital. It provides critical income.

The Houston Food Bank collects huge amounts of donated food. But unless these donations can be rapidly sorted and distributed, they become worthless. To imagine the challenge, think about the journey a jar of peanut butter must take from a collection barrel to reach a hungry child. Along with millions of other items, the peanut butter must be hand-checked for safety and freshness. It must be placed in a grocery sack with bread and jelly. The sack must be delivered to the child’s family. What asset transforms donated food into meals? Volunteer labor.

By providing high-quality volunteer experiences, the Houston Food Bank turned this asset to full flow. To maximize the volunteer labor, it remains open seven days per week. Your youth group can join other youth groups from across Houston to volunteer Sunday. When you volunteer, peanut butter and other items are brought to you on a conveyor belt. Why? Volunteers find it fun. Volunteers hate straining their eyes to read a micro-font expiration dates. The Food Bank provides scanners. Last year, all together volunteers donated the equivalent labor of 128 full-time employees. These 50,000 volunteers each learned more about community hunger from the experience. Hundreds of the volunteers accepted the invitation to donate to the Food Bank.

To create job services for people, Goodwill Industries of Central Florida maximizes the value of donated goods. To maximize receipts, Goodwill developed a complex system. It uses a wide range of tools. It studies results and it tweaks its operations. The majority of the donated goods head to retail outlets. The best-of-the best donations are sold online. Merchandise that does not move, like your spouses’ ugly-disco shirt, ends up in an outlet where treasure hunters pass judgement. What about your books? One hundred thousand of them were sorted in 2014, providing one million dollars in revenue.

How Can You Create this Alchemy? 

The Florida Orchestra fills seats. The Houston Food Bank enhances volunteer experiences. Goodwill Industries of Central Florida maximizes the value of used goods. Each nonprofit studied its assets. Each considered if an asset might solve a mission challenge. Once an asset with potential was identified, the nonprofit focuses on turning the asset’s flow to high.

I hope, by now, you’re curious if you can obtain similar value from your assets. To discover your opportunities, make a picture. To remind yourself of the business end of a hose, place each asset in its own circle. Even if it’s just a trickle, jot down every asset. Why? Like a hose in the dry corner of your yard, people often overlook assets. You don’t want to disregard your most promising asset! The graphic illustrates common ones. Your first drawing may include entirely different possibilities.

Graphic: Example Assets – This graphic contains 14 circles, each circle is labeled as follows: volunteers; in-kind donations; venues for presentations; physical space; birth to old age services; community connections; links to businesses; parents; alumni; inventions or processes; social media platforms; history; prominent location(s); in-demand skills.

Enlarge Graphic

Which Asset to Hyperdrive? That, Is The Question. 

With your picture in hand, one-by-one explore the assets. Remember you’re looking for a resource with the potential to solve a key challenge. The key to this technique is your analysis. For now ignore all the logistics you might face increasing an asset. Give yourself a magic wand. Imagine it working wonderfully. What would more of each asset do? Do you know anyone else in the field using it as a key resource? How would more of it impact your program, brand, finances, and, even, your physical site? Imagine a blast of it coming to you. Does it dissolve any roadblocks between you and results?

Once you have a good picture of an asset’s potential, move on to other assets. Give each resource a mental walk through the impact of increased flow. Even if it’s barely a trickle, you can if it matters, turn up the knob. As you hit upon possibilities, seek input from your staff, board, and others.

What do filled seats, volunteer hands, and used goods have in common? Each represents an asset whose flow was maximized to improve a nonprofit and the community. The Asset Hyperdrive technique may or may not work at your nonprofit. It will get you thinking about possibilities—and closer to finding your ingenious solution. Please share what you find, so I can share it with others.

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