Comedian, Ali Wong, has a bit that starts something like this. “I used to work for a nonprofit. Yeah, anyone else ever been a ****ing martyr?” The crowd laughs because it’s true. And then… well… and then, some of us cry. Again, because it’s true. Funny how these organizations aspiring to address issues are so often plagued with them. Commonly, overtime work, part-time wages, no benefits, no professional development, no strategic assessment, and consequently, low employee retention (except for the tireless founder, of course), propelling a vicious cycle of burnout, making weaker an already flimsy infrastructure.
Sorry if that just gave you a headache. Imagine mine. As a careered nonprofit worker, having spent my entire adult life in the field, I’m only now beginning to recover from that abusive relationship. Really though, Tina, I hear you. What’s love got to do with it? Better late than never, I guess. One advantage to those twelve years of experience is the wisdom I’ve been granted to be able to make the following humble observations and suggestions.
To their credit, nonprofits are experts in boot straps and shoe-string budgets. They know how to roll up their sleeves and apply elbow grease, how to save money and do things on the cheap. That is, to lean up: on electricity, heating, water, office supplies, staffing, and salaries – and still move projects forward. They were into recycling before it ever got hip! Plus nonprofits can mobilize volunteer talent pretty effectively, at least for short bursts. If the goal is to survive, then heck, tooth and nail, nonprofits certainly know how to do that.
The downside of learning to do more with less is that organizations get acclimated to just having less. Surviving is all well and good, but as a goal, it’s a pretty low bar. Generally, nonprofits don’t know how to thrive, how to make surplus, and how to take care of their own. It’s not surprising, however, when you consider the role of identity. How can you define yourself by what you’re not? Or worse, by what you reject? This is a rhetorical question, of course – I mean, you can’t. Such is the problem of the not-for-profit paradigm. It’s got scarcity, victimology, opposition and a sprinkle of paranoia deeply entrenched within its name and narrative. These attributes are then supported by the false economy that nonprofits reside in: The grants system. I say “false” because it defies the basic rules of supply and demand. For instance, there’s something topsy-turvy about a program or institution that is well-funded but poorly attended. That’s when a quiet voice in my head might chime in… “Someone’s cheating.” And because this nonprofit never bothered to diversify its revenue stream or provide tangible services or products to its supposed community, when the funding isn’t renewed (Jah-forbid another organization should be worthy of the support), they predictably cry foul.
SO, WHAT’S NEXT?
Not to fret. Knowing is half the battle after all. What I’m about to suggest – and these are only starters – I’ve already seen some nonprofits doing exceptionally well.
1: Ixnay on the iningwhay. Cold-turkey on the complaining. I mean it. If frequent and aggressive panic and self-pity got anyone anywhere, I’d say go for it. But there is no person or group – and I’ll dare anyone to prove me wrong – that has ever blamed or lamented their way to success. You’re either a victim or a victor. Pick one and stick with it.
2: Ask the question that many mom-and-pop shop owners ask: What can I do to help you? How may I be of service to you? What can I offer you? Commerce (or any progress for that matter) is stunted by those who always take but never give. On the flip-side, the more people you help, the more social and cash value you will accumulate. Incidentally, this is why entrepreneurs often see their role as problem-solvers or life-enhancers. “Help how?” you might ask. Listen. Yes, listen, really listen. Put your pitch and your needs on pause for once. You’ll be amazed at the relationships you’ll build, the support you’ll amass, and the ideas you’ll conjure when you stop talking and practice genuine empathy for your fellow human. This applies to your workforce too, not just patrons or potential donors.
3: Keep good company. Find respectable role models. We tell children all the time, Don’t hang out with losers. They’ll drag you down. Ask of your nonprofit, What is our business model? Who has a good business model? How can we emulate who is applying a good business model? How can we align with those who have good business models? It saddens me how many people want their work to be honored but haven’t honored their own work enough to consider how it’s all supposed to pan out. A business model will include a financial strategy, a multi-year plan, and a refining of core values.
3-1/2: And, have I mentioned? …keep good company. In the hiring process, don’t just look for likability or for someone you can tightly manage. Come on, dream big! Find qualified personnel that exemplify personal and professional advancement. The kind of people who represent excellence and inspire excellence in others. Individuals that are healthy, optimistic, avid, action-oriented learners and leaders. This includes members of your board, who aren’t only there to fulfill 501(c)(3) legal requirements. A powerful board can move mountains. As Jim Collins says in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, “A” players hire A+ players. But B players hire C players, and C players hire D players. Consider the effects when you assemble your team.
Remember, “nonprofit” is a legal status. It doesn’t have to be your company’s mindset or culture. Martyrs are closely associated with heroism. But they’re also closely associated with being dead. If beauty, education, fairness or quality of life speak to your mission, demonstrate those principles by fully living them yourself – today. Extend that image of health to your team, your vendors, your partners, and all the good folks that make your organization’s existence possible. In prioritizing an improved outlook and mode of operations, people will recognize the vitality of your organization by its infectious peace of mind and enthusiasm. And who, at any level of giving, wouldn’t support that?