The Mikuska Group  

When is it time to pack it in?

When is it time for an organization to hang up the cleats? Stop fighting the fight and dissolve or merge?

  • If the mission is no longer relevant i.e. the reasons for founding the organization have become obsolete.
  • If the organization’s mission is similar to others in the community.
  • If the funding has dried up, especially from governments, and there is no natural base of support i.e. donor or member relationships don’t exist or are few in number.
  • If opportunities for earned income are not viable e.g. sales, fees.
  • If the organization exists solely on projects and has no sustainable income.
  • If the mission is supported by only a handful of foundations.
  • If the volunteer base is aging and younger volunteers aren’t filling in, both in client service and on the board.
  • If the board is dysfunctional and relations with staff are sour.

Any one of these reasons may not be what makes an organization decide to dissolve or merge. But for some, it will be a combination.

The Manitoba Society of Seniors was founded in 1979 by volunteers who wanted to give seniors a voice. At the time, seniors needed advocacy around pensions, housing, services and recreation. MSOS also provided services at low or no cost (tax preparation, financial counselling, photocopying), operated bus tours and published the MSOS Journal. It ran the popular 55 Plus Games. Membership, at one time as high as 10,000, provided steady income, and numerous volunteers worked in the office, at the games and served on regional councils.

In 2011, MSOS closed its doors and ceased operations, citing declining membership and revenues. Other organizations work with government to advocate for seniors’ issues, and offer services once offered by MSOS, including the 55 Plus Games. They ceased to be relevant to enough people to support it either as volunteers or as members and donors. Baby Boomers don’t see themselves needing advocacy by a seniors group as they are used to going after and getting what they want.

Deciding to stop operating is not failure if it’s done thoughtfully. If, for example, the need for services still exists in the community but an organization is unable to deliver on its own, a merger with a similar organization can allow for the work to continue. Or any remaining funds at dissolution can be given to an organization with a compatible mission.

If you’re struggling, ask yourselves why. If the conditions aren’t right to go on, then stop.

Laura Mikuska


Thoughts on the federal Liberal convention

I recently volunteered at the Liberal Party of Canada’s biennial convention, held in Winnipeg for the first time in 36 years. Last time, I was able to see the first Prime Minister Trudeau, this time, the second PM Trudeau. It was a markedly different experience.

What struck me this time was the diversity of the delegates, staff and volunteers. Every age, gender, and ethnicity was represented. I met two recent immigrant volunteers who were not even eligible to vote in the 2015 election, yet were highly engaged with the Liberal party. One had since become a Canadian citizen, and the other was intending to apply. Both were impressed that they could have access to, and speak with, the Members of Parliament who attended the convention. They were amazed that MPs were “regular people”, able to mingle with the masses, unencumbered by body guards and an entourage.

It also struck me how valued the volunteers and donors are by the MPs, the Prime Minister and the staff. “Because of you” was a phrase heard often – without the thousands of volunteers and donors who worked tirelessly on the election, there would not have been a Liberal majority victory. Even as a convention volunteer, I was thanked countless times by the staff and delegates alike.

We in the social impact sector can take a page from this experience. Engaging our donors and volunteers, celebrating our successes together, and thanking them again and again – this is how we can change the world.

Laura Mikuska


The case for support – it’s not about you

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a case for support is not only for capital campaigns. Your case is critical to your annual appeal, planned giving program, and corporate and foundation giving.

Think about it – if you haven’t articulated a persuasive case for support, how can you approach your potential donors? If you don’t know what they need from you so they can say yes, then you’re likely to fail in your request.

One of the gurus of the art and science of the case for support is Tom Ahern. His book, Seeing Through A Donor’s Eyes: How to Make a Persuasive Case for Everything from your Annual Drive to your Planned Giving Program to your Capital Campaign, is a must-read and must-follow for making your case.

Who needs the case for support? Everyone in your organization. It allows everyone to sing from the same songsheet, with the same words. It’s your key messages all in one document. It’s your go-to place for media releases, website, direct mail, planned giving, speeches and op-ed pieces.

According to Tom and observed in our own experience, the three most important questions for getting to the essence of your case are:

  1.  Why us? (What are you doing that’s so uniquely wonderful that the world should want more of it and support your mission and vision?)
  2.  Why now? (What’s the big hurry? What changed? Why is this crucial now? Why can’t it wait?)
  3.  Why you, the donor, might care? (Why are donors critical to your mission? Have you made them the heroes? What are your emotional triggers? What is the philanthropic opportunity you have to offer? What part of the world will the donor save or change through you?)

If you just work through the first  question, you haven’t involved the donor. If you leave out the second question, there’s no urgency to respond. And if you don’t answer the third question, you’ll never discover what will motivate your donors and they’ll feel free not to respond.

Working through this process has a profound effect on how you view donors. Because at the heart of it is the realization that it’s just not about you. It’s about the donor, and about what moves them to help you solve problems in the world.

Julie Mikuska.


Public spaces and sponsorship

I recently attended the Western Sponsorship Congress, which is an annual event put on by The Partnership Group – Sponsorship Specialists. Brent Barootes and his team delivered another great congress full of stories and advice to raise the bar on sponsorship in Canada. As part of their work, they partnered with REPUCOM to produce the 2015 Consumer Sponsorship Rankings, an exclusive Canadian research study on sponsorship.

Among the most interesting statistics from the study were with respect to Municipalities and Sponsorship. 85% of respondents said that companies should be able to sponsor public spaces such as hockey rinks, ball parks and recreational facilities. Clearly there’s an appetite for attracting revenue through corporate sponsorship!

Municipalities often complain there’s not enough revenue to do the things they need to do. With all the assets they own, from parks to bridges, from walking trails to arenas, there is lots to offer corporate sponsors to meet their needs. This is an important revenue stream – is your municipality paying attention?

Laura Mikuska


Food security vs. good food

How you talk about issues is just as important as the issues themselves if you are to be heard.

One of the biggest walls in communication is jargon. It exists in every domain, every organization. It comes from what Chip Heath and Dan Heath call “the curse of knowledge.” In their must-have book, Made to Stick:Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Diethey say:

“Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

 A prime example of jargon exists in the world of “food security.” In our work with Food Matters Manitoba, we have helped them to overcome the jargon of food security with the goal of talking about “good food for all.” In their recently published Gratitude Report, they say:

“Thanks to you, local gardens are now nourishing people in Brochet. This year, under the leadership of Trina Halkett, a community-built greenhouse significantly extended the short growing season. And two young people were hired to help tend the garden and teach others. Malcolm, a student in grade nine, was one of them.

In Brochet, where a ten pound bag of potatoes costs $30, fresh produce is highly valued. In early September Malcolm harvested potatoes, onions, cabbage and turnips. After the harvest he visited more than 30 Elders to deliver bags of vegetables.”

In contrast, today’s Winnipeg Free Press has an article entitled Food security off the table in election. Clearly the authors are experts in this area, but much of the article is a hard slog, because it’s written in an academic style filled with jargon. For example:

“Providing sustainable funding for community food co-ordinators in all northern communities is a first step toward inclusive and community-based solutions. There also needs to be a complete overhaul of Nutrition North that includes financial support for hunting and gathering and own-food production, as well as federal regulation of the prices for food and other necessary goods and services. A basic income floor adjusted to reflect northern costs would go a long way to alleviating poverty more broadly.”

What does this really mean? What will it look like on the ground, talking about real people?

Unfortunately, we all suffer from the curse of knowledge. But once you recognize you’re speaking and writing in jargon, take steps to make your communication concrete and simple. That’s when your message will become more clearly understood. 

Julie Mikuska.


Experiences matter

You can tell donors about impact and about their central role in transforming lives – a letter, newsletter or even in person. They’ll appreciate it and use that information to decide whether to give or give again.

But when they see it for themselves it becomes a part of them. The experience stays with them for life. Especially if it’s authentic.

Think about what experiences you can offer one person or many people. For example:

  • A theatre company takes donors on a “behind the scenes” tour, explaining at each stop what goes into putting on a production – thanks to the donors.
  • An organization dedicated to good food for everyone invites donors to a cooking class offered in a neighbourhood where newcomers are taught about cooking and nutrition.
  • A health clinic invites donors to see the power of their gifts in action at the clinic, meeting the staff and hearing about their work with clients.

Make sure your board members are invited and encouraged to engage with donors. That way, the board members get to thank the donors in person, and listen to why donors are committed to your organization.

Julie Mikuska.


Low overhead is a race to the bottom

Are you still talking to your donors about overhead? Does your board operate on the premise of aiming for low overhead? Do you squeeze your budget to get the lowest possible percentage of overhead?

If so, stop right now.

Overhead is not an indication of impact. Low overhead is not a badge of honour. And by not educating donors about how an investment of their funds includes keeping the lights on, you’re doing them a disservice.

Whenever we hear a donor say they want 100% of their gift to go to “programs,” and not to “overhead,” it means they don’t understand that most of an organization’s budget is for people. Those people run the programs! Or they raise funds to run the programs. Or they keep the books for the programs. And so on. And they deserve to be adequately compensated, and not work for peanuts just because they’re working at a non-profit.

Concentrating on overhead is a race to the bottom. The less you invest in your organization, the harder it will be to do the work you’ve set out in your mission. Non-profit doesn’t mean “to starve an organization.” It means the “profits” are for the community’s benefit, not shareholders. So making sure the organization is on sound financial footing is very important.

We all want what’s best for the community, and that requires investment for impact. So talk to your donors about how you’re making an impact by providing solutions to problems. Then ask them to join you in making a difference.

– from our May e-newsletter – subscribe here.

Julie Mikuska.


Thank you is just about thanking, yet so much more

It’s been a mixed bag as far as thank you letters and gift acknowledgements on my gifts to charities this year. Some have gone so far as to weaken my resolve to give to them next year. Others have given me cause to give again. Yet others have left me indifferent.

Here are some of the results:

The good:

  • A handwritten card with a personal note along with a receipt for my gift, sent within a week.
  • A lovely personal letter sent the next day from the executive director for a gift made through (the receipt came immediately through Canada Helps).
  • An acknowledgement and receipt sent the day I dropped off my cheque.

The bad and ugly:

  • No greeting. No “Dear Julie” to catch my attention. In the same letter, they said they look forward to my continued support in the future.
  • My gift to one of the largest campaigns in the city went unacknowledged for months (they had cashed the cheque promptly, though). When I e-mailed to inquire about a receipt, they said it would be coming in the new year.
  • A member-based charity sent a tax receipt for a portion of the membership that was a gift, but again, many months after the initial payment was made.

Really, a thank you is very simple. Think of what your mother taught you – sit down and write to Aunt Ruth for her birthday gift right after you got it. The longer you wait, the less likely Aunt Ruth is to send you another one.

Sending a thank you is telling the donor they’re important. And a well-written thank you letter tells them they’re really important. But even a prompt, less well-written letter is much, much better than a great one months after the gift.

Even if you can’t get a receipt generated promptly (and that’s a subject for another day), send the thank you anyway and let the donor know when to expect the receipt.

It’s not about the transaction. It’s about how you make donors feel. So make them feel important and say thank you as soon as they make their gift.

Julie Mikuska


Fear and loathing: Databases

What comes to mind when someone mentions “database”? Do your eyes glaze over? Do you curl into the foetal position? Scream in frustration? Think that someone is talking about a spreadsheet?

You’re not alone. Many non-profit organizations have had little to no experience with a database, let alone success. A database seems to be shrouded in mystery, hidden behind a ubiquitous fog that seems impenetrable. When it comes to extracting the data to use in a mailout, or – horrors! – analyze your donor base, you muck through as best you can and say a little prayer to the gods of IT that your results are reliable.

I’m here to say that it doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s worth the investment to engage a professional who knows what they are doing to teach you good practices and principles of data management. Good data is the underpinning of a great fundraising program. Notice I said good data, because as the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. You have to pay attention to what you enter into your database and how you do it. Make sure you have someone who is familiar with the principles of fundraising, so you can tailor your learning to maximize the use of your database.

Some examples of what a data management program can help you accomplish:

  • track total donations for each donor/household
  • let you find out if you’re losing donors and take action
  • identify donors who you may be able to approach and ask to be a monthly donor
  • track activities that engage donors – did they attend the gala? Come to your open house? Meet with the board chair? Use this information to further engage them in your work
  • choose which donors will receive a special mailing based on their donation history

Your data is as important as your staff. You can’t be effective if you don’t know who your donors are. Make the investment – the results will speak for themselves.

Laura Mikuska




fear and loathing – (Hunter S. Thompson) A state inspired by the prospect of dealing with certain real-world systems and standards that are totally brain-damaged but ubiquitous – Intel 8086s,COBOL, EBCDIC, or any IBM machine except the Rios (also known as the RS/6000).



Talk about impact – not what you need

We often encounter people in non-profit organizations talking about what they need. “We need to raise $10,000 to replace the stoves and fridges in our kitchen.”

So what? Donors don’t care what you need.

They care about what the impact is, and how they can be part of that impact.

So what does that look like?

  • The stoves and fridges are not impact.
  • Even the food that’s prepared using them isn’t impact.
  • The happiness of the kids who come after school – and the fact the meals you prepare are likely the only nutritious food they’ll get all day – is impact.

Another example – you say you need $10,000 to build a classroom in Kenya. The classroom itself is the means to the impact – the education of girls in rural Kenya to give them the best chance of thriving.

What’s your impact and are you asking donors to join you to make it happen?

Julie Mikuska


Blog Archives

Articles By Category