It's Time To Kill The Unicorn
We love you nonprofits. We do. We're here for you, we're committed to you, we want to see you grow and thrive and serve more constituency and finally FINALLY have the resources you need to meet the seemingly endless need. We want you to be amazing because you deserve to be amazing. And there's no reason, in a climbing economy, that you should be struggling.
But, so many of you are. And we're sure you have a reason. "The problem is fundraising" you'll say or "The issue is our Board." But you're right and you're wrong. Because the reason you're not doing so well isn't the community. It's not the economy. It's not the bad bill that just went through or the lack of significant press or marketing.
We're sorry nonprofit friends. And it hurts us to tell you. But it's time to kill the "unicorn" notion that sweeps our industry. No one is magical. No one person, one issue, or one change is going to really fix the issues that continue to plague the nonprofit industry as a whole.
The problem is you. The problem is us. The problem is a community that has the wrong internal and external perceptions of the way a nonprofit is supposed to run.
Nonprofits Have a Massive Culture Issue
"It's ok," we'll tell you (or you'll tell us) "the situation is definitely not unique. Lots of nonprofits struggle." And it is unfortunately not a lie. Many many nonprofits struggle financially. The need always seems to outweigh the resources. But, it doesn't matter. You'll tell us you have something on the burner with our foundation friends. You'll tell us that someone you know has a friend who works at a bank. But the problem is more pervasive than that. The problem is cultural. And culture shifts are hard. So let's rip off the bandaid, shall we?
Whether it's the Board or the line staff that thinks they aren't fundraisers - they are wrong. Whether it's the leadership team or the government that thinks foundations are there to ensure your continued operation - they are wrong. We hate to beat this over your head, but we're all in this together. And together means that we all understand the key roles of everyone in the organization.
1. Executive Leadership
Let's start here. On more than one ocassion, some well-meaning neighbor, friend or constituent has said "thank you for your work for the community" and you've accepted it. But we know that it makes you just a LITTLE uncomfortable. After all, we're not usually doing it for free and even if we were, philanthropy isn't totally selfless. It's fulfulling to do this work. But ego has taken an uncomfortable place at the leadership table at too many nonprofits. The Executive staff is responsible for instilling, modeling and engaging a total culture that puts your constituency's needs first and foremost, fundraising second, and ego and status a very distant last. We need to start vanquishing ego in our own ranks, in our staff, and on the Board. Clients come first. Always.
2. The Board
We know, Board members, you're our favorite whipping people. But you know we love you. And we love you because you are the ultimate organizational steward, shepherding nonprofits through long-term mission strategy, ensuring governance practices, and leading the organizations fundraising strategy AND implementation. But as Spiderman's uncle Ben says, "with great power comes great responsibility." And it IS a big responsibility. Because you not only have to shape policy, you have to MODEL it. BE the champion. If it isn't exhausting, you're doing it wrong.
3. The Staff
We normally leave staff out of this, but this is an organizational issue, and you are core. Too often we encounter staff that bemoan an inactive Board, or a disengaged community. And you have a right to be frustrated. But, start within. Understand that we all play our roles within a nonprofit culture, and you are all of the above. Encourage collaboration, discourage disharmony, and don't break ranks to complain about your job, roles or outcomes with clients or donors. Lastly, you're a fundraiser. If you got into this job thinking that you're only an intake coordinator, a volunteer manager or a crisis line counselor, you're missing the big picture, and it's hurting your organization.
4. Constituents and Donors
We owe our constituents and donors transparency. They need to have a clear understanding of what we offer, who we serve, and how we raise the funds that we operate on. Granted, this can be a little tough with certain populations. But for an industry whose IRS records are public knowledge, we are remarkably opaque when it comes to how we operate. We know, it's the fault of the 2% overhead crowd, but the more honest we can be about how we ACTUALLY operate, the more donors and constituents can help us move the needle in a culture that thinks that philanthropy is always someone else's job.
5. The Consultant
Yep, here we are again making things tough on our own kind, but we need to stop being apologists. We need to stop taking jobs that internal staff could and should do, and we need to help ensure that the grand plans we lay out for nonprofits actually get implemented. Not only are we selling our clients short, we are selling ourselves short as an industry when we don't produce and demand excellence. No one is an island, and promising nonprofits that we are isn't just irresponsible, it's dangerous. We're propagating an impossible standard teaching that one person can come in and solve an organizational issue, when it's going to take the whole team.
We're all in this together. We all deserve a little wake-up call. So let's start the new year with clarity and determination. Together, and only together, we can do more good.