Strategic Planning for Nonprofits: One Leader’s Approach

by: Sabre Linahan
Verified by: CPA

May 28, 2024

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I recently sat down with Anthony Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Hub404 Conservancy in Atlanta, and the Co-Founder, former President and CEO of the Aurora Theatre, for a wide-ranging conversation about Anthony’s experiences building and leading nonprofit organizations. 

Our experience with nonprofits has shown that it can be difficult for leaders to balance the organization’s commitment to social good with the practical realities of financial management. But with a little experience and the right research, up-and-coming organizations can learn from the victories and missteps of their predecessors. 

When it comes to leading, evaluating and benchmarking community nonprofits, nobody knows better than Anthony Rodriguez. 

Influential in the Georgia nonprofit community, Anthony Rodriguez is currently the Executive Director of the Hub404 Conservancy in Atlanta, and the Co-Founder, former President and CEO of the Aurora Theatre.

His journey in nonprofit leadership started in 1996 when he co-founded the Aurora Theatre as a small company in a converted hardware store. With his only prior experience being an actor in the region’s theater community, Rodriguez hardly expected to be leading two influential nonprofits almost 30 years later. 

Despite his initial expectations, the project grew quickly. In 2007, they partnered with the City of Lawrenceville (Georgia) to create an $8 million complex, featuring two theaters and a parking deck. In 2021, they again partnered with the city to open a $40 million expansion, demonstrating their continued impact on the local arts and culture scene.

This success eventually led him to take charge at Hub404, which is committed to revitalizing, fostering socioeconomic development, and creating an innovative nine-acre green space over GA 400 in metro Atlanta. 

Leveraging Forms 990 from Other Nonprofits When Growing Your Own

When building a successful nonprofit, there’s no better resource than experience. Rodriguez credits much of his success in leading Hub404 to having built the Aurora Theatre from the ground up. 

However, but new nonprofit leaders may not have lived experience to fall back on. In that case, they can learn by example via Form 990, which shines a bright light on the operations of tax-exempt organizations. We regularly tout the value of the Form 990 to nonprofit leaders, and it played a foundational role in the success of the Aurora Theatre. 

“Form 990 gave me a lot of information in the early days,” says Rodriguez. “I used it both to explore what my competitors or contemporaries were doing and to learn what other theaters looked like. It helped me answer questions like: What do they care about? Where are they getting their revenue? How are they spending their money? Who are their top donors?” 

That said, the value of that research hinges on the team’s expertise. It’s more difficult if you’re putting on a one-man show. Rodriguez notes that Form 990 plays a much more significant strategic role when he can rely on a team with relevant expertise:

“When my board chair was a CPA, we had these conversations much more often than when it’s just me. At the Aurora, I would sit down with the team and we’d talk about what we found useful to highlight in our 990s or how we could do better. At Hub404, I’m the only employee, so I look at everything myself.”

In short, just like Form 990 helps nonprofits leverage the expertise of more established organizations, accounting and finance expertise can help them use Form 990 to its best advantage.

The Form 990 for Benchmarking as an Established Organization

Once established, Form 990 is essential for benchmarking one’s own performance and demonstrating an organization’s commitment to its cause. 

Rodriguez recommends reading the Form 990s of comparable nonprofits. This helps organizations spot opportunities they may not have taken advantage of and ensures that the most compelling information is well-represented. 

This data is crucial not just for the nonprofit itself but also for the various stakeholders in the nonprofit’s community. Form 990 can be viewed by other organizations, potential employees, partners, and more, but it’s especially important for donor relations. 

As any experienced nonprofit leader knows, raising money and building engagement with current and potential donors is a constant and unpredictable effort. After all, nonprofits often depend on discretionary funding to continue operations, and sources can dry up quickly when unexpected challenges hit. 

“I was President and CEO of the Aurora Theatre when the pandemic hit,” Rodriguez remembers. “I had a bonus challenge at the time: we were building a $40 million complex with the City of Lawrenceville. And because it was a partnership with the city, it was all essential work. It never stopped. So, while we were only tasked with raising $5 million, we needed to ensure our donors understood what was happening.” 

A strong relationship with donors, facilitated by clear communication and a detailed Form 990, makes this type of challenge much easier to overcome. Donors can confidently prioritize giving when they understand how their money is being spent and why.

Similarly, nonprofit leaders like Rodriguez, who work to understand their donors’ priorities can build more sustainable partnerships.

“I don’t want to beg for money every single year,” says Rodriguez. “I want to make sure I understand why they want to contribute. If I have to come back every year, begging for more, it will get complicated and awkward. I don’t want to have that conversation. Instead, I understand what is important to our donors, and they understand what we’re trying to achieve.”

This strategy of mutual understanding paid off during the pandemic. 

“We knew there were other needs in the community that needed to be taken care of, which weren’t about whether a theater could survive,” says Rodriguez. “So we communicated that to all our major donors– we knew they were making substantial contributions to other charities that needed that support quickly. And so, when the time is right, please understand that we’ll still need your support.”

Ultimately, the Aurora gave these donors several options. One example was giving donors the option to have the money they’d paid for 2020 season tickets to be refunded; another was to put that money towards 2021 season tickets. And because of their strong relationships and the theater’s transparent communication, most donors stayed on.

This incident taught Rodriguez and his team an important lesson in strategic planning and maintaining donor relationships and trust in the organization. As a result, they now have a plan to ensure funding remains available if a similar situation arises.

Strategic Plan Considerations

For many organizations, strategic planning is an underutilized process.

Rodriguez notes, “I’ve been through the strategic planning process with several national organizations I serve. A lot of organizations go through that grueling process of creating a strategic plan and then ultimately fail to follow through with it. Instead, once they’re done, they never look at it again.”

Although it requires additional effort, the strategic planning process is invaluable for organizations that want to grow year over year because it requires forward thinking. Effective strategic planning clearly outlines an organization’s priorities, goals, and what it would prefer to avoid. This helps organizations remain focused and consistent, making it easier to evaluate new ideas later and reject those that don’t align with the overall mission.

A strategic plan should also be treated as a living document. Organizational priorities can shift as the nonprofit board rotates. Updating the strategic plan accordingly has two key benefits: 

  • It brings new board members into the loop regarding organizational mission and priorities.
  • It ensures that shifting priorities–often due to the new leadership–are accurately captured and communicated.

Much of this comes down to effective leadership. Because so many nonprofit employees and volunteers are focused on the day-to-day operations of the organization’s sustainability, it’s vital that leadership maintains a forward-looking perspective. 

To do this, Rodriguez says leadership should ensure the organization’s internal culture is solid and that everyone understands the mission and how they fit into it, as outlined in the strategic plan. Leaders also need a deep understanding of the local community. 

He says, “Nonprofits need to fill a space in the community that the community cares about. We shouldn’t just decide what to do in a vacuum. We need to make sure that we’re engaging the community, asking them questions. If we want the organization to live on, the community needs to own it as much as we do.” 

In other words, a thorough understanding of the local community’s needs helps ensure the strategic plan is effective and relevant. This, in turn, helps the nonprofit create programming that the public buys into, which generates earned revenue and interest from potential donors.

Building Stronger Communities 

While they take different approaches, the Aurora Theatre and Hub404 share a commitment to revitalizing their communities through the arts, culture, education and interpersonal connection. Their strategic vision helps them stay the course and build strong relationships within their teams, donors, and the larger community. 

With a commitment to persistence, understanding, and expert insights, these organizations will continue to pay dividends long into the future, providing new generations with opportunities to connect with the arts, their community, and themselves. 

Partnering with an accounting firm like Smith + Howard, which truly understands the nonprofit industry, can help maximize your nonprofit’s impact through strategic advice on your Form 990, audit services that provide efficiency and value for stakeholders, and more. At Smith + Howard, our dedicated nonprofit accounting team brings deep expertise in preparing Form 990 filings and helping organizations build a sustainable financial platform for continued growth.

If you would like us to take a complimentary look at your Form 990 to provide insights on how you might better present your data for donor engagement, contact us today.

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If you have any questions and would like to connect with a team member please call 404-874-6244 or contact an advisor below.