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What Nonprofits Can Learn from a Hockey Coach

Sports can teach life lessons, but hockey can teach...nonprofit lessons? It sure can!

What Nonprofits Can Learn from a Hockey Coach

That’s not a headline you see every day! My day job is helping nonprofits succeed by sharing the unique benefits of CharityEngine’s fundraising software. But my other job is coaching youth hockey teams (Mites to Midgets, if you’re in the know) along with supporting my son, who plays professional hockey.  

In the 20 years I've been coaching, I’ve learned a lot about hockey. 

In the 20+ years I’ve worked professionally, I’ve learned a lot about nonprofits. 

And no one was more surprised than I was when I realized a lot of hockey lessons could help nonprofits.  

Time for a Nonprofit Power Play! 

In hockey, a power play means a team has a good chance of success. Here are five hockey lessons I’ve learned, and I teach, that can put any nonprofit in the perfect position for a bigtime power play.

1. Be a team.

The most successful hockey teams are those that understand the team (even beyond the six players on the ice in any given game) is much more powerful than any individual player. If the defensemen do their jobs, the goaltender is more successful. When you look at your nonprofit, ask yourself: Are you all on the same team? Have you set goals, assigned responsibility, and held individuals accountable? Do you work together to make each member successful? When every member of your team is committed to—and actively pursuing—the same goals, you’re well on your way to success. 

2. Stealing is okay. 

Another headline you don’t see every day...

In hockey, stealing a puck is not only a good idea; it’s kind of the point most of the time. Nonprofits don’t often have pucks flying around, but you probably do see ingenious or successful campaign ideas fairly often. Steal them! Duplicate successful events, whether they’re yours or someone else’s. When I see a coach run a great drill, I use the same drill with my team. All nonprofits are trying to change the world, so stealing good ideas is a high form of flattery.

3. Cheering sections rock.

My son, Connor, tells me that a packed arena energizes him on the ice. The communities that come out to support his league, the ECHL, factor into the teams’ successes. Similarly, nonprofits need community support. Whether you want to plan a local community appreciation event or even plan outreach for volunteers, having reliable community support can bolster your efforts and even help you win grants from local corporations. 

4. Maintain a solid roster.

Coaches know that a roster is the central truth of a team. Keeping players healthy and engaged while allowing for injuries or other attrition is a delicate dance. Nonprofits must do this, too. Your roster consists of all supporters, donors and volunteers alike. Donor and volunteer recruitment, engagement, and retention must be campaigns that underlie everything your nonprofit does. As you plan for the next six or twelve months, ask yourself and your team what you’re doing to shore up your roster.

And then check in on it often; pay special attention to those who miss a monthly donation or cancel a volunteer gig. They might need a call or a check to make sure everything is okay. (Hint: this is a great way to help with donor retention. When I pull a player aside to ask how he’s feeling, he knows I care. When you pull a donor or volunteer aside, they feel the same.) 

5. Go for the big trophy.

Whether I’ve got a five-year-old player triumphantly clutching a dime-store trophy or my son’s teammates gunning for the coveted Kelly Cup, hockey players don’t mess around when it comes to going for gold. Your nonprofit should do the same thing! Claim big, audacious fundraising goals. Plant a flag that says you’ll increase donors by 50%. Whatever metric you most want to increase is the one that everyone on your team should be committed to changing, so set the biggest goals you can and then give achieving them your all. 

Breakaways Aren’t Just for Hockey 

One of the most exciting plays in hockey is when a player can break away from the defense and skate toward the opposing goal unimpeded. When your nonprofit has interesting campaigns planned, big goals your cohesive team is chasing, and community support, you’re poised for a clear breakaway. You can speed toward your goal unimpeded. 

Now, you’ve learned a lot about my hockey background, but I do also work for CharityEngine. Previously, I worked for Salsa Labs, which is probably a familiar name to many nonprofits. Fundraising software and nonprofit technology are worlds I understand well, and the fundraising software your nonprofit uses can make the biggest difference of all. 

We aren’t the right choice for every organization. In fact, we’ve listed a bunch of our competitors and where their strengths lie, so you can check out that objective list the next time you’re in the market. And if you ever want to talk software or hockey, hit me up. I’d love to talk to you!