Who moved my funding?

Lee Fisher talks about “moving with the cheese” in the 2000 strategic plan for the Center for Family and Children (CFC), a nonprofit organization that provides social services to families that could otherwise not afford them.

Quotations from the bestseller “Who moved my cheese?” may not be what people expect from the leader of a 31-year-old nonprofit, but then again, how many nonprofits even have a strategic plan, let alone someone like Fisher as president.

If you aren’t among the millions who read John Spenser’s allegory about change and dealing with it, you may wonder why anyone is worried about cheese being moved and what it has to do with the CFC. Cheese is a metaphor for things we need, and is the reward at the end of the maze of life. In the case of the CFC, that reward is funding dollars and the maze is the changing funding environment.

Like other nonprofits, the CFC is highly dependent upon the government, foundations, corporations and individuals for its cheese. Fisher says it is too dependent.

“The most recent state budget confirmed our thoughts that we cannot depend on any one source,” explains Fisher, whose background in state government as state senator and attorney general give him a unique understanding of the economics. “Between 60 and 65 percent of our revenue comes from governmental sources — federal, state, county and local.”

Fisher’s solution is ironically similar to what the CFC teaches its clients — self sufficiency. Under his leadership, the CFC looks more like a traditional business than a nonprofit organization. It’s akin to the age-old adage, “Give a man a fish, you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

When Fisher arrived as president after an unsuccessful bid for governor of Ohio, he decided to tackle the funding problem in a practical business fashion — one that earned him the honor of Visionary in the 2001 Innovation in Business awards.

The center adopted the most comprehensive strategic plan in its 30-year history, articulating over nine arching goals. One of those goals was to become more self sufficient. To accomplish that, the CFC sought to develop innovative ways to get fees for its services and enhance business development and revenue generation.

Several of the CFC’s programs already generated small amounts of income. The trick was to increase the amounts and build the organization’s overall cash flow.

“There is an analogy to small business,” says Fisher, “While it’s important to focus on your core competencies, it is also important to be looking for opportunities that can capitalize or leverage on those core competencies in order to increase revenue.”

Using terms like “core competencies” and “strategic plan” is just the beginning of Fisher’s grand idea.

“It is combining the best of both sectors — the business smarts of the for-profit world with the heart and compassion of the nonprofit world,” he says.

Fisher expects that increased accountability will also have an effect on traditional funding the centers receives.

“If I were a contributor, I would want to know that I’m giving to an organization that is financially sound,” he says. “Also, that they have a long-term view of how they are going to survive.”

The mix has a fundamental synergy that Fisher believes will be appealing to both donors and clients.

“How often can you buy a service that enhances the productivity of your workers and at the same time does something good for the community?” Fisher asks. “Usually, you have to choose one or the other. The product that we sell is both.”

How to reach: Center for Families and Children, (216) 241-6400