Did you read the BBB, Guidestar, Charity Navigator letter about The Overhead Myth ? I did. And even as I cheered the message, it felt wrong. It was written to the wrong audience. The donors who commented were not convinced.
The same day I read Michael Schrage wrote in Harvard Business Review’s Good Leaders Don’t Use Bad Words, and I saw the problem; the authors were being lazy with their words. Instead of speaking to their audience’s needs, they were speaking to their own.
Nonprofits will certainly be better served if donors don’t focus solely on overhead as a measure of competence. But what’s the upside for the donors? Why should they care? That’s where the authors fail.
Donors should be looking for measures that demonstrate value to society. Are people’s lives being changed? How lasting is the change? How is the nonprofit making sure that it’s effective? What does it need in order to stay on track? These are the measures that donors should be looking at.
Instead of telling donors that overhead is the wrong measurement, we need to help them see the benefit of seeking alternatives.
“Do you really need a Board or does having one just lead to more chaos…?”
A few months back, this loaded question was asked of the Nonprofit Professionals Group on LinkedIn, and a robust discussion followed.
My favorite answer, though, came from colleague John McClusky.
“…we, the public, “entrust” the “trustees,” the predominantly volunteer body named “the “board,” to serve as our agent to ensure that the NPO actually pursues the socially beneficial purpose (mission) it claims to fulfill and acts in a fundamentally responsible way with the charitable donations and tax exemptions we grant it…”
In other words, the Board of Directors is entrusted with the responsibility to make sure that the mission is fulfilled.
For years, I have been telling boards that their job is to ensure that the mission of the organization can be fulfilled now, and in the future. It lays the groundwork for the board’s role in ensuring that the resources necessary for this fulfillment – financial, intellectual, capital, social, vision — are available to the organization.
But I’d never really looked at the other side of the role. When we serve on boards, we are not only serving our own nonprofit organization, we are also serving society. We, the Directors and Trustees, are the eyes and ears of society, are responsible for making sure that the dollars which society entrusts to us are used wisely and to fulfill the intent which we proclaim. Our donors give us their wealth; our government is giving up tax dollars to us.
As directors and trustees, we serve our nonprofit. But we are also trustees of society, and as such, responsible for upholding our end of the bargain.
Being on a board is an awesome responsibility. Let me know if you’d like to talk about instilling this vision of a board’s role throughout your work.
Niccolo Machiavelli was right, when he said. There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
Wow. He sure nailed it on the head. If you’ve ever come into an organization and tried to change its course, you know just how right he was. Change is hard, change is risky, and change is resisted.
And even when people claim to be willing to change, almost to a person, they will tell you that their peers will resist it.
In February, Julia Kirby wrote an analysis of the downfall of a change agent. As I read her blog on Harvard Business Review, most of her analysis boils down to arrogance. Coming in as a white knight that will rescue a situation, creating an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality, presuming that everyone agrees that change is necessary – any one of these will create resentment in an organization. Doing all of them is sure to make change even harder.
An organization is made of people who have invested time and their lives in building something good. To be told that it has to change implies that they have wasted their time, or that what they have built is not good.
Instead, engaging every level in the organization in making the already good even better creates a team more willing to work on change. And change is important, to keep up with society, and to ensure that you’re delivering your mission in the best way possible.
It’s not a panacea – change IS hard – but a willing attitude goes a long way toward making those difficult transitions easier to take. Instead of imposing change, inspire the team to aspire to greatness. Change will follow.
Quit calling it donor relations.
It’s people relations. It doesn’t matter if she’s a prospective donor, a volunteer, a parent or a student. It doesn’t matter if he gives time, money, or attention. Or none of the above.
If you care about your organization, then you should be building relationships with every person.
Every single person you encounter.
Segmenting the people you know for the purposes of sending appropriate messages is one thing. Segmenting them because you think that somehow donors are different from other people is completely different.
A person is a person is a person is a person. A person has dreams, hopes, and ambitions. A person has quirks and traits and tendencies. Anyone might have a reason to care about your organization, and it might not be the reason you think.
But if you only look at her as “soccer mom,” you might miss that this particular person dreams about somehow personally making a difference. If you only look at him as “volunteer,” you might miss that he hopes to introduce his kids to philanthropy through your organization. If you only look at that couple as “stay-at-homes,” you might miss that they really are seeking for the best way to invest their time and energy together.
Everyone should be in your database, so when you encounter that person, it doesn’t matter whether he’s a donor or not – you have an entrée into a conversation about their dreams, hope and ambitions.
A chance encounter with a community member was a forceful reminder of this truth. His kids are really into soccer. My client was an arts organization that educates children. A mismatch? Not at all. Not after he wistfully said he wished his kids could learn a little discipline. What is learning to play an instrument but learning discipline? Sure, it’s a lot of other things, too. But one big part of what it brings to kids is the knowledge that if you keep at it, you become better. Maybe the class in rock can do that for him.
Everyone you meet is a potential relationship. And every relationship starts with seeing every person.
Where are you now?
Before 1973, no one ever asked where are you? when they reached you on the phone. Of course they knew where you were. You were within 3 feet of the telephone they had dialed (now that’s an anachronism!). Thirty years later, times have changed. Today, because of mobile phones, one of the first things we ask when we reach someone is, where are you?
Where are you? An innocuous casual question that turns quite profound when you ask it of your organization. If, in 30 years, the world has changed so we call individuals instead of a place, has your nonprofit kept pace? Do you still ask your constituents to come to your location, or do your meet them where they are? Have your programs evolved to meet the new mobility of society? Has your mission changed?
Society’s rate of change has accelerated. When was the last time your board of directors evaluated whether your programs are still relevant, much less whether your mission is? Once every 10 years isn’t enough (and maybe it never was). But certainly never shouldn’t be the answer.
In fact, maybe now is when you should ask, where are you?