YMCAs, JCCs and community rec centers are unique. They’re nonprofit entities, but they have to keep the lights on. This puts community rec professionals in a difficult position of finding the balance between prioritizing initiatives that benefit the community and programs that generate revenue.
“I refer to this paradigm we face in the nonprofit world as ‘margin versus mission,’” said Jason Stowell, the division director of fitness and wellness at the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh. “It’s important to understand today’s organizations are very complex entities attempting to offer a number of incredibly important services and programs to our communities — and a great number of these community-centric programs will not generate any revenue at all.”
In leadership and management positions, there will always be a temptation to cut programs and services that don’t generate revenue simply to implement better sources of revenue. According to Stowell, this is often a mistake. “It is incumbent on the program areas that do show a profit to do so in both an ethical and sustainable way,” he said.
The balance between margin and mission comes down to prioritization. And there certainly is a true balance that must be struck, but what you value most — members or money — will be evident in the programs you devote resources to.
“Always deliver value to your members first,” said Stowell. “For example, every dollar we can generate in a personal training program is one more dollar that can be spent on furthering our mission of creating a better world, starting locally.”
That’s not to say your facility should only have community-facing programs, regardless of the revenue they do or don’t bring in. Remember, you have to keep the lights on. However, there is a certain standard you can hold all programs to — this can help in achieving balance in the margin versus mission paradigm.
“I have three qualifiers I use in determining whether a program makes sense to continue offering: it generates profit, it’s mission-specific or it’s part of a strategic plan,” shared Stowell.
Take a look at your own offerings: if a program checks all three boxes, it’s a perfect fit. If a program lacks one of these three qualifiers, it’s worth evaluating why it’s part of your programming and what outcomes you’re prioritizing.
“There’s no doubt on occasion tough choices have to be made, but it is important to remember we always start with the mission in mind,” explained Stowell. “For example, our Special Olympics program does not generate a financial return, but is something that is squarely at the heart of why we, as community rec centers, exist.”
When examining specific programs or amenities to add or adjust, the organization’s mission should take precedence over attempting to generate a profit.
And in Stowell’s experience, these decisions will not be easy. “Of course I’d like to buy shiny new equipment every year,” he said. “But does having that new set of dumbbells outweigh the loss in connection and community we could have created by offering another low-cost community offering? Those are the questions we as leaders face every day.”
Successfully balancing margin versus mission comes down to determining your “why” on a personal and organizational level.
“I would advise anyone who holds a leadership position in the nonprofit world to start by asking themselves two simple questions,” advised Stowell. “‘What do we want to accomplish in our community? What change are we going to bring about to make sure we leave this world a better place than we found it?’ Then you can talk about the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of getting there.”
Finding your “why” as an organization is the most important step. According to Stowell, committing to your mission should dictate your team’s decision-making. “Once that ‘why’ is established, it is critical our teams develop sound and fiscally responsible programming to deliver on our mission and purpose,” he said.
It all starts with a mindset shift. Rather than trying to come up with a way to make revenue-generating programs fit into your mission, try finding mission-oriented programs that can generate a profit. It could take some trial and error, but those programs exist.
And if you don’t have as many money-making offerings as you’d like, remember as a nonprofit, operating in the black isn’t as important as the impact you’re making in the community. As long as you’re making enough money to keep the lights on and the community engaged, you’re doing something right.
“Our mission, our community and our members are why we exist,” shared Stowell. “If we lose sight of that and simply focus on the things that make us money, we have lost our way.”