Chasing Unicorns is Killing Your Nonprofit

Every day, we talk to nonprofit staff and board leaders who, most of the time, are certain about what their organizations need: an engaged board of directors, a visionary and actionable strategic plan, exceptionally qualified job candidates…and on and on the nonprofit wish list. But too often, when we dig into what they’re doing or planning to do to achieve these goals, we feel like we’re in a movie where the real world fades away, fairy music starts playing, and we’re dancing with unicorns over rainbows. A complete break from reality.

Nonprofit leaders, we appreciate that you know what you want, but we’re begging you: Stop chasing unicorns. 

It’s time to get real.

1. YOU CAN’T GET A TOP-PERFORMING BOARD OF DIRECTORS WITHOUT PROVIDING BASIC TRAINING AND SUPPORT.

We agree that boards should fulfill all their roles and responsibilities, including fundraising, making connections, and empowering staff to manage the day-to-day operations (the three most common pleas we hear). Most board members are well intentioned and want to meet your expectations – but they don’t know how. You need to help them get the knowledge, practice and confidence they need to do their jobs.  

2. YOU WON’T FIND JOB CANDIDATES WHO CHECK EVERY SINGLE BOX OF YOUR IDEALIZED JOB DESCRIPTION – AND THEN PAY THEM LESS THAN YOUR COMPETITORS.

Do you really need a Development Director who has 10+ years of fundraising experience, six-figure gifts from individuals, foundations and corporations, mastery of government contracts, deep knowledge of your mission, a Rolodex of prospects, a Master’s Degree, and five other “required” qualifications? If the answer is “Yes, we definitely must have all of this!” – then be prepared to offer a compensation package that’s better than all the other organizations courting this perfect hire. (And also read our blog post about why job descriptions like this have a negative impact on diversity, equity and inclusion in our sector.)

3. YOU CAN’T CREATE A STRATEGIC PLAN THAT IS BOTH TRANSFORMATIVE AND ABLE TO BE IMPLEMENTED AT A ONE-DAY RETREAT WITH ONLY YOUR BOARD (OR STAFF).

Look, we hate endless strategic planning processes that result in dusty binders on shelves as much as you. It’s important to be disciplined and efficient when planning – but you have to balance it with the time required for thoughtful discussions and exploration of data and insights to make informed decisions. Good strategic plans require input from stakeholders (board, staff, donors, volunteers, constituents, partners) and iterative work with the staff who will be tasked with execution.

4. YOU WON’T BUILD A DEEP BENCH OF INTERNAL TALENT FOR SUCCESSION PLANNING WITHOUT OFFERING LEADERSHIP GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES.

“Building the leadership bench” is a priority we hear from many organizations. But when we ask if high-potential team members are encouraged to attend leadership development courses or offered stretch assignments to extend their experience, we learn organizations are reluctant to make investments or take risks beyond staff’s current roles. The Development Director who might be an Executive Director candidate is only approved to attend a workshop about planned giving. The Program Manager with stellar reviews from the past three years isn’t invited to a strategic conversation about a new initiative. Potential leaders need to be nurtured and given the chance to practice if we want them to succeed in the future.

5. AND FINALLY, A WORD TO JOB CANDIDATES FROM OUTSIDE THE NONPROFIT WORLD: YOU CAN’T TRANSITION INTO THIS SECTOR AND EXPECT TO “MAKE A REAL DIFFERENCE,” ACHIEVE A WORK/LIFE BALANCE, AND MAINTAIN YOUR CORPORATE SALARY AND BENEFITS.

As a sector, we’re making strides in tackling burnout issues and paying living wages – but truthfully this is still tough, draining work that doesn’t have the same material rewards as a for-profit job. There are definitely opportunities for fulfillment, but they come with trade-offs that you need to understand and embrace.

We want all nonprofits to dream big about what you need to achieve your mission – but let’s not romanticize what it will take to get there. We’ll all have a much greater chance of succeeding if we face reality about the commitments required and let go of the unicorns and rainbows just over the horizon.

WANT TO KNOW THE NEXT STEPS OF IMPLEMENTING YOUR STRATEGIC PLAN? SIGN UP FOR OUR UPCOMING LEARNING LAB.

DOES YOUR LEADERSHIP BENCH POOL NEED COACHING? WE OFFER THAT.

LOOKING FOR A NONPROFIT JOB? WE’RE CURRENTLY HIRING!