Nonprofits: We must break out of the Scrappiness Cycle


Next week my organization is having its annual dinner, which means that right about now everyone is busy and on edge. Occasionally we share our anxiety-induced nightmares with one another as a form of stress relief:

“There I was, sitting at my table next to the Mayor and Benjamin Franklin. Suddenly James comes on stage, and he was holding a giant raw fish as a prop for one of his jokes. And I thought ‘No! You can’t handle raw fish on stage, since you’ll be shaking hands with everyone! We’ll get blamed for an outbreak of salmonella!’ I tried screaming, but no sound would come out. We were doomed. Doomed…”

The dinner has been consuming all our waking, and apparently non-waking, thoughts. Last month, a donor sent in a gift basket for the staff for the Lunar New Year. It contained high-quality chocolates and cookies and was wrapped up all nicely. We quickly sent a thank-you note. At the next staff meeting I took out the basket and started to open it. A hush fell on the meeting room.

“What are you doing?” someone asked, shocked.

“I’m opening it,” I said, “it’s for us.”

“Wait!” said the group, “it’s too nice! We should use it as a raffle item at the dinner!”

These last few months have made me realize that we nonprofits are constantly in the Scrappiness Cycle. We are always scrimping, trying to find the best deals, trying to get stuff discounted or preferably free. We scour Craigslist looking for usable furniture, and we pounce on businesses that are moving or closing, hoping to score a kick-ass filing cabinet (with a lock!). It has become a mindset that is ingrained in all of us. It is our donors’ money! We must save! We must be responsible!

We totally should. But I think we have gone too far. Scrappiness and frugality are great skills that everyone should have. But like sake bombs, they should be taken in moderation. It would be better for our organizations, our clients, and our own sanity to actually be a little LESS scrappy.

First, there is the time and opportunity Cost: In our quest to save a few bucks, we miss out on more productive opportunities. To save about $2,000 to furnish our previous office with 8 work stations from IKEA, for example, a staff and I rented a Uhaul, drove to a business that was moving, and brought home 8 wooden desks or so. For free! They were heavy and the project took us a whole day to move, several days to assemble, and another day to get rid of the desks once we found something better and equally as scrappy.

This time that we spent moving and assembling furniture could have been spent connecting with donors, writing grants, or otherwise doing something that could have brought our organization money. Worse, while assembling a desk, a piece fell and scraped my shin, leaving a painful bruise that lasted literally months. If I weren’t so nice and hadn’t initiated the project, I could have sued the organization.

Second, scrappiness prevents us from thinking beyond the short-term. When we are scrappy, we tend to skimp on necessary resources like the right people and the right tools, which means we can’t be as effective, which means we have to be even scrappier to survive, perpetuating a vicious cycle that keeps us from moving forward and leads to really crappy office chairs from Craigslist. How many boards are so fixated on how much is spent on office supply or other expenses, instead of focusing on the long-term growth and awesomeness of their organization? I was facilitating a retreat a few weeks ago for the board of another nonprofit. This was clearly a dedicated, passionate working group of people. But they were stuck in the present, and with almost no staff, they were reaching burn-out. Running completely on volunteers is very scrappy, but it is difficult to sustain.

Third, and most importantly, we nonprofits really need to get out of this Martyr Mentality. It seems we nonprofit staff take an unspoken vow of poverty when we enter our profession. It has been beaten into us over hundreds of years, and like smoking or checking emails in bed it is a very difficult habit to break. But we have to. This mentality is ineffective; it drives talented people to burning out and to leaving the field, and it negatively shapes the perceptions of people who are not in the field, preventing good ones from even thinking of entering.

We need to believe that we are not bad people for wanting nice things like a decent work space (See “Nonprofit office space: We deserve better!“). I’m not talking extravagant things; this is not a carte blanche to say that we should skip out on due diligence and go crazy buying caviar and use fancy French terms like “carte blanche.” But buy a metal filing cabinet with locks. Take the team out once a while for lunch. Hire the necessarily staff. On occasion this may seem risky, considering how unstable our funds are and how society expects martyrdom. But society cannot expect us nonprofits to continue to hunker down, be scrappy, avoid risks, and hope to thrive. But it will if we ourselves keep believing and perpetuating this cycle.

The Scrappiness Cycle doesn’t work in the long run. And we and our community deserve better.

So. Back to the gift basket. “Our annual dinner is coming up,” I said, “and this basket would make a nice raffle item, ’tis true…

“But no, it’s for us,” I continued, finding momentum in my speech, “We work hard. We deserve something for ourselves once a while. We’ll find other stuff to raffle off. Plus, it’s not nice to the person who gave this to us if we give it away. We’d be disrespecting their wishes. No, it is our DUTY to eat these treats!”

“Eat these treats! EAT THESE TREATS!” the staff chanted in unison.

All right, they didn’t do that. They still looked at me like I was crazy. But they reluctantly accepted, and I tore open the cellophane…

What the…

Dammit! There was nothing vegan for me!

We wasted a nice pre-wrapped basket for NOTHING!


36 thoughts on “Nonprofits: We must break out of the Scrappiness Cycle

  1. lisaarnoldconsulting

    On a related note: What do you think about the effort to exempt nonprofits from a $15 minimum wage ordinance? Stl Human Svcs Coalition issued a report/advisory that seems to suggest that nonprofit workers earning less than $15 will be taking crucial services away from vulnerable people. Is this suggestion fair to either the workers or to vulnerable people?

    1. Stacy Ashton

      Wow, terrible, terrible plan. I think we have to stop thinking about “vulnerable people” as a group that is not us (collectively). Many non-profit workers are already low income; to by definition exclude them from (inadequate) protections designed to keep low-paid workers somewhat able to afford the costs of living makes them even more “vulnerable” than the “vulnerable” they serve! There are no “others” who are vulnerable, mentally ill, physically ill, parents of children with disabilities, adult children of deteriorating parents, affected by pollution, impacted by social injustice, etc etc. It’s all of us experiencing all these things at all different times in our lives. Whether you are working in the community benefit field or not, you deserve all the basic protections our laws have to offer.

      1. Vu Le

        Thanks so much for the important and thoughtful message, Stacy. I agree. There shouldn’t be a dichotomy. The basic protections of our laws should cover everyone.

    2. Vu Le

      Lisa, I think Stacy below sheds a lot of important light on the issue. I know it is complex. I definitely support raising the minimum wage so that everyone can afford a decent living. I was talking to another nonprofit, though, and while the ED supports increasing wages, he knows it may mean losing staff because they won’t be able to keep everyone. But it’s good that we are all talking about this.

      1. verucaamish

        This is super important for organizations that engage in campaign work where their canvassers are paid well below the $15/hour. What does that mean for the campaign if they are unable to pay the people organizing for an increased minimum wage that minimum wage?

      2. lisaarnoldconsulting

        Definitely no easy answers to this. But I agree that it’s good to discuss. For example, what if the nonprofit community would collectively press the City of Seattle to fund nonprofits at levels that allow them (the nonprofits) to pay staff at least $15/hour? Are the expectations of funders realistic re: nonprofit expenses? What if nonprofits started a conversation with foundations about this?

  2. nReach1

    Great article. I’m currently working with a nonprofit who’s been trying to launch a website for two years using ‘free’ or ‘near free’ resources. The opportunity cost, short-term thinking and martyrdom have been piling on top of what will ultimately be a less-than-stellar solution. They should have just done it right the first time.

    Even worse, HQ leaves it to each local affiliate to build their own website. There are 300+ of them. That pile reaches to the moon and back.

    1. mcpierogipazza

      What a foolish approach! They are way too big an organization to be messing around with such nonsense. What a waste of resources.

  3. RKB

    my colleague and friend just thanked me 10 minutes ago for “letting” her take a taxi to the airport instead of the bus. was kind of a joke but not really, since i’m super frugal and also thinking about the 20 bucks it costs and where that might otherwise go. but when your staff are traveling between 3 or 4 countries to different projects each year, giving up any semblance of a life or home, there are some small things that can make that slightly less stressful. like you say, it’s important to think long term, or else burn out is sure to happen. keep up the great work.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, RKB. It’s good to recognize and appreciate all that we put into this work. We shouldn’t feel guilty for the resources that we require to do our work.

  4. Erin

    Absolutely hilarious! My nonprofit and myself are totally guilty of this! And yes, we would have saved the basket for an event!! And then asked for the basket back! haha

    1. Vu Le

      Erin, the first step to recovery is to recognize that you have a problem! But I understand completely. I’ve been known to ask for the basket, and cellophane, back (It’s Seattle. We recycle everything)

  5. Lorraine Thomas

    You’re so right. One of our board members was at “the office” last week and she had to order me to go buy a new desk chair because the one I had was totally beat up and my back was starting to hurt but I was being all “keep the overhead low”. Sheesh.

      1. bsaunders

        I worked part-time at a church. I had a very old, very uncomfortable, non-ergonomic chair. The occupants of the chair when I was not there – the elderly volunteers. Why were 80 year olds sitting in that unhealthy chair?

  6. All Fives

    My husband, who works for the government, often chides me about this kind of behavior. I think it is most egregious when it comes to paying our staff what they should be valued. “Why don’t you write the grant at $20/hour (or more)?” he often says. Man, I’d like to, but who would fund that? Then we turn around and buy consultants (when we can) at $50- $100/hour. If given the chance we can do the work. And we’ll do it for less, and better. Our plans will actually happen, not just sit prettily on the shelf. We just need the opportunity to build capacity in house, not depend on those who (while often well-meaning) result in highly paid one-offs.

    1. Vu Le

      I completely agree, All Fives. There are a lot of systems and mindsets we need to change. But it’s possible. Let’s do it!

  7. verucaamish

    I seriously need to shoot the funder who tells the grassroots group I work with to “do more with less.”

  8. Mary Cahalane

    You’re going to need to keep pounding this lesson home, with your borrowed hammer. It is SUCH an engrained mindset. It’s a disease! And what’s worse, is that when we buy into it, everyone who is not us starts to buy into it as well. I’ll be we’ve all been talked to condescendingly by a business person – because of course, he’s well paid, and I’m not, but my 25 plus years of experience couldn’t possibly mean I’m pretty damned adept.

    Also, we need to erase the idea that caring for those who need care is SOLEY the province of the nonprofit sector. We do this work, and yay for us… but hello, human beings, this is everyone’s work!

    I’ll get off my soapbox and go back to spending my free evening hours thinking, reading and writing about work. 🙂

  9. mcpierogipazza

    We often say we’re aiming for changing the world but aim really, really low. I’ve noticed that business allies in my city often dismiss plans because they are so penny ante that they aren’t worth their time. They push the staff to think bigger, think about growth. Not always the case, but their comfort with risk is a good balance to our risk aversion.

    Bottom line: investing in staff, the tools of the trade, training and more helps you meet your mission more effectively. And let’s face it, most of us who worry about our offices looking “too nice” never actually have offices that are too fancy.

    Being a martyr takes the focus off the mission and makes it about you. Wrong focus.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, mcpierogipazza. I agree that being a martyr can seem really self-absorbed. We must do what’s good for our organization and community and that means investing at the right levels

      1. verucaamish

        But this ain’t happening in a vacuum. Corporate donors are always pushing for the big thinking and then end up giving $5K and expecting $100K of impact. General support money from foundations is drying up and that kind of money allows for the spacious, big picture thinking. Having worked for a national nonprofit representing grassroots service organizations, I am continually pissed at a certain government agency that gives three years and ONLY three years of startup funding for grassroots groups but is more than happy to renew grants indefinitely for mainstream groups.

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  11. holly

    I am fairly certain my non profit colleagues would have torn open the cellophane on that basket before anyone had time to chant “eat these treats!”
    I love this article. Very thoughtful and thought provoking writing. So glad I discovered your blog.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Holly. Sometimes, we just need to tear open the cellophane. We need to take better care of ourselves. By eating junk food from baskets.

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  14. Steph Tanner

    I definitely agree that we need to break out of the scrappiness cycle. I think Dan Pallotta drives this point home in his TED talk: The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong. I have it on my website if you haven’t seen it:

  15. Rene Hamlin

    This … all of this! Your donor wanted to honor you and your staff. To repurpose it would have been offensive to the donor.

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