As in any field, nonprofit management has its little truisms: Boards make policy and staff members carry it out. Hire an independent facilitator for strategic planning. Always thank your volunteers.
One of the most often-quoted truisms is that nonprofits should seek as much diversity in their revenue streams as possible. Turns out that some truisms are truer than others, and anybody handing out absolute rules is probably trying to sell you something. There’s no substitute for understanding the ins and outs of an issue and then smartly applying them to your own situation. What blossoms in one situation might crater in the next.
The basic principle sounds good: depending on one primary source of income can be risky, especially if that source begins to head south, so it makes sense to hedge your bets, right? Indeed, the decree that more types of revenue – or more revenue streams – is always good has been around for a long time. Each revenue type (and source) comes with its own levels of reliability, constraints, and costs, and all may not align appropriately with the organization or its stakeholders or other revenue sources. Many types of revenue streams may need a runway where they may cost more than they bring in for a period of time. Some need a different kind of organizational capacity than what exists. Some may draw you off course or create reputational issues. Some revenue streams might soften with the economy, while others do not.
Examples of this kind of complexity are everywhere. Picture a thrift shop that lives and dies purely on individual contributions, which we might call a concentrated portfolio. In contrast, the homeless shelter across the street may also rely substantially on individual contributions but also benefit from a foundation grant, county government sponsorship, and earnings from a social enterprise (a café staffed by shelter residents). We might say that the shelter has a diversified portfolio. And that’s always good, right?
Not always, no. Perhaps the government grant does not pay full costs of the service required to fulfill it, and therefore requires otherwise precious unrestricted money to supplement a specific contract. And perhaps the social enterprise demands more than its fair share of staff attention – producing more angst than cash. The fact is that every revenue source requires some transaction costs: money, time, and attention. Every revenue source has its own level of restriction, from complete to none at all, and this affects autonomy and adaptability.
The thrift store can do what it wishes with the money it makes within the confines of the non-distribution constraint, unless, of course, it loses money or operates on a very thin margin. Its revenue is not likely to decline with the economy. In fact, the opposite is true. All of these details about the nature and behavior of various revenue streams matter to the health of the overall operation, complicating the question of whether or not diversification is needed.