Avoiding the Pitfalls on "The List"

When non-profit boards are asked to generate a list of ways to grow, it's often worse than nothing.

Avoiding the Pitfalls on "The List"

Having worked many times with, for, and among non-profit publishers, I’ve been involved in a number of discussions about strategic alternatives to traditional revenue streams — publishing and membership. Usually, when things get heady, the board is called in to provide their input.

Over the years, I’ve developed a mental checklist of the options the board or scientific advisors usually come up with. I’ve come to dub it, “The List,” which is meant to impart a sense of foreboding. The List has proven reliable and predictable. Others who interact with non-profit boards and academic advisors have confirmed that The List consistently emerges when these part-timers are asked for ideas about how to grow an organization and diversify revenues.

Here is The List, with a quick recap of the typical discussion:

  1. Let’s pursue international growth. There is no country called, “international,” so soon there is a priority list of countries, usually starting with China. It’s really growing, isn’t it? There’s lots of money there. Big opportunity for membership.
  2. Let’s market more to students and trainees. Young people are a big opportunity. Just need to learn what they want. They respect us. My students/trainees/residents all feel this way. They want to join, I just know it. They have no money.
  3. Let’s hold more meetings and events. They’re big. Let’s have more events. Aren’t they big money makers? Maybe we need more students to attend. In China.
  4. Let’s expand into education. We need to find a way to do more educational programs. Students in China at a meeting receiving education.
  5. Let’s call some philanthropists. We could call the X Foundation tomorrow and get a lot of money.

Sadly, The List can be worse than nothing, as each idea or direction represents a way to deplete time and attention from leadership and management teams.

China is a long-term build, requiring staff and travel and consultants in order to work.  And patience — lots of patience. Even then, getting your money out is a challenge, and the investment level remains high for years. China is changing rapidly, as I noted recently. And, as Scott Galloway put it in a recent edition of the Pivot podcast:

. . . the core competence, in my opinion, of China right now is IP theft. . . . They let tech companies come in just for long enough to steal their IP. They prop up a local entrepreneur, and they capture the value domestically. Which, by the way, has been a smart move. . . . [It’s the] same thing the U.S. did in the 18th and 19th centuries, stealing IP for textile manufacturing out of Europe, even kidnapping artisans.

Students and trainees don’t have much money, so pursuing them is pretty draining. And they usually completely disappear for 3-5 years after they matriculate from whatever level you’re observing while they find their career path, spouse, and new home.

Meetings are expensive to create and run. They have notoriously slim margins in aggregate because of the risk — one snowstorm or transport strike can wipe out the attendance and leave the society holding the bag.

Educational programs generally address a rotating subset of the membership, which can be potentially lucrative, but only if there is an educational requirement at the heart of the endeavor. Sticks work better than carrots.

Philanthropists are always in demand, which makes them hard to reach and unreliable in the long run. They also like to dabble. In a recent interview, Kathleen Kelly Janus of Stanford, who has studied the non-profit space, painted this picture:

Nonprofits who responded to my survey said that they spend 75% of their time on fundraising. Companies would never get anything done.

This is how The List can be worse than nothing. Pursuing any or all these uncertain and complicated initiatives, even for a year, can waste lot of time, money, and attention.

We’ve recently seen the arrogance at the heart of Plan S on full display, with Robert Jan-Smits saying societies the “will have to bite the bullet and go open access.” This is driving up the urgency for societies to find other revenue streams, yet The List remains pretty much the same. The problem is there isn’t a magic path to a new source of recurring revenue that’s going to ramp up sufficiently by 2020 or even 2030. It’s just not on any list of realistic options.

Societies have found a great, mission-driven source of recurring revenues — journals and books and content sites of various kinds. The subscription model has allowed societies small and large to have predictable annual revenues, hire professional staffs, and create long-term cultures in their disciplines. The “innovation” I consistently see working at societies pursuing growth remains books and journals and other publishing initiatives. These keep societies relevant. Their members value the publications and updates and books and journals. The recurring revenue model ensures stability, and is generally popular with readers and members.

But I’ve also encountered organizations enamored with The List, who view additional publications as simply more of the status quo, and on that basis objectionable. Yet, again and again, when items from The List are pursued in parallel with new publications, it’s the new publications that deliver the growth, expand the footprint of the organization, lead to new partnerships, and create more viable careers for people.

Publications and subscriptions are not things to just walk away from, surrender, or brush aside. They’re special, valuable, and worth enhancing and protecting.

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