How Nonprofits Can Pivot to Earned Income

how nonprofit can pivot programs to generate revenue during the coronavirus crisis
The following content came directly from THRIVE IMPACT’s weekly Crisis Conversation Series with nonprofit executives. These discussions are a place for nonprofit executives to learn, ask questions, and share insights on what’s working for their nonprofits.

Many thanks to C’pher Gresham, CEO of SEED SPOT, for sharing his expertise with us.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced nonprofits across the country to pivot in minor and significant ways, from changing how we deliver our services to how we engage our stakeholders.

And what about revenue? During economic instability and volatility, donor behavior can be worrisome and sometimes evaporate (especially if your primary donors are corporate). The good news: Individual donors tend to stick with the groups they regularly fund, even through economic downturns.

But there’s another major opportunity besides philanthropy that nonprofits don’t consider or tend to ignore: Earned income. Many nonprofits can earn important income from a product, service, or technology that they may not have thought about selling yet.

Here are a few stats (52.6 percent of all statistics are made up, but these are legit)

70 percent of nonprofits use a funding model heavily dependent on philanthropy
Earned income accounts for:
  • 74 percent of total revenue for nonprofit health care providers
  • 61 percent of total revenue for housing organizations
  • 40 percent of total revenue for arts organizations


  • 16 percent of total revenue for advocacy nonprofits
  • 11 percent of total revenue for philanthropy organizations

So there’s a big opportunity for nonprofits to think about earned income in a new way. Times of upheaval can compel you to shift or create a new paradigm. Old models might close, but that also opens new doors for your organization. Embrace it! Here’s an example of one organization that discovered a new earned revenue strategy just from the leftover “crap” lying around:

What do zoos have a plethora of? Animals, of course. And what do they produce the most? Poop! This is a cost center for the zoo, meaning they have to pay a lot of money to dispose of all that waste. One volunteer at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle was an avid gardener and was constantly looking for nutrient rich fertilizer. The zoo offered her their fresh manure for free if she would just haul it away. But they soon realized there was a market opportunity to sell it instead. So, they created ZooDoo. This effectively pivoted a cost center into a revenue driver.

Finding the Right Pivot for Your Nonprofit

Here’s a brainstorming exercise to get you into action quickly. Answer these questions for your own nonprofit – take the time to think creatively and write down your answers. Then, put it out in the world!

What existing assets or capabilities do you already have that you could sell?

This could be intellectual property, skills your team has, physical space like your building, even a new product you develop you’ve been using in your programs.

Who would you sell this new idea to?

Pilot and test the idea with that audience. Gather a group of potential customers and ask them what big problem they face. Find out if your solution will effectively solve their problem.

Where (marketplaces, channels, partnerships) might you sell this concept?

Go where your customer audience is. Don’t be afraid to “ship it” before it’s completely polished – be agile! Get comfortable trying new things, failing fast, and learning how to improve every step of the way.

No one had a section in their strategic plan on dealing with a pandemic.

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