Waiting for the dough: How fear and other existential forces affect the nonprofit sector


raven-988218_640Hi everyone, the Seahawks lost again, so I chugged two bottles of Ace blackberry pear cider (I don’t really follow football; I just needed a reason to chug some pear cider). Being tipsy makes me philosophical and rambly, so I am not sure how much sense this post is going to make. 

At a conference panel I was on a few weeks ago, I brought up the Nonprofit Hunger Games and how the survival mentality has been affecting all of us in the sector. A woman raised her hand and said, “I see what you’re saying, but I’m afraid that if I share information about funders and donors with other nonprofits, I might lose funding.”

It made me realize a couple of things. First, “Nonprofit Hunger Games” would make a great movie:

Katniss: Peeta! What happened to you?!

Peeta: Theory…Theory of Change Swamp…it was brutal…Katniss…you have to win the final grant for District 12…

Katniss: Stop talking, save your strength.

Peeta: It’s better this way. Eventually we’d have to…(cough)…kill each other anyway in the Storytelling round…

Katniss: Here…a sponsor sent in some food…Have some hummus, Peeta…

Second, it made me realize just how pervasive a factor fear is within our sector. There’s no gentle way to put this: The nonprofit sector is full of brilliant people paralyzed by fear. Boards fear liabilities and getting sued. Executive Directors fear not having sufficient cashflow for the next payroll; we fear firing staff who are clearly not a good fit for our organizations; we fear the perceptions from the community with every decision we make; we fear giving funders and donors feedback.  Development Directors fear losing individual donors; we fear that our org’s brand is weak, or that we are not up to date on the latest fundraising techniques. Program Directors fear our outcomes and metrics are not strong enough; we fear we are not doing enough for our community members; we fear that our programs will shut down and harm the people we serve.

Meanwhile, from what I hear, program officers fear that they are not investing in the right strategies and organizations; they fear that the investments they are making may actually not lead to anything useful for society; they fear how trustees will respond to changes in strategies. And trustees/families fear how their legacies will look, how society perceives them.

And speaking of society, it has a pervasive fear that we nonprofits are doing unscrupulous things. It fears we are using money for “overhead.” It fears we are selling human organs on the black market. It fears nonprofit staff having excessively high salaries.

I know the above sentences provide a simplistic view of the forces driving the work. The point is that so much of nonprofit work is shaped by fear, and it has been preventing us from being as effective as we can and should be. We don’t take as many risks as we should, and “innovation” becomes moving from one safe thing to a shinier safe thing.

Today, I met with a potential corporate sponsor for lunch, and they brought up the frustration they saw in nonprofits investing in the same systems and processes, not willing to step outside the comfort zone. “There is a risk in not taking risks,” said one of the reps. Normally, I get defensive when anyone who has no experience working in nonprofit starts criticizing our sector (“How DARE you, sir, talk about sustainability when half your kind fail after four years”). But they did work in nonprofits, and they had a point: We tend to be very risk averse.

The solution, then, is that we need to understand our fears, and start taking more risks. But I think it’s more complex than that.

In college, or maybe high school, I read “Waiting for Godot,” a play by Samuel Beckett. It is about two dudes, Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for a third dude named Godot, who turns into a giant cockroach. No wait. That’s not it. Godot just never arrives. They wait for him, and he never comes. That’s the entire premise of the play, and it is goofy and sad and brilliant. Godot represents God, or the meaning of life, or death, or something else entirely, and the fact that we are waiting for him and he never arrives is symbolic of the futility and absurdity of existence. Or whatever; I’m tipsy, and you may have a different interpretation.

Why am I bringing this up? Two reasons. First, a huge factor that motivates people is the fear of death.tunnel-965720_640

I was having coffee with a trustee of a foundation a few months ago, and we launched into a great conversation about how this fear affects our work. “Everyone is afraid of death,” she said, “whether they admit it or not. It factors so much into what we do in life. People accumulate stuff, for example, hoarding their money.” We talked about other ways this fear manifests. Many of us, for example, probably enter this field because we are seeking meaning through our work because unconsciously we know the inevitable is coming. Founders fear the death of their creations, and thus of their own meaning, so they cling on for as long as they can. Many of us fear the death of our organizations and programs, so we adopt the survival mode and perpetuate the Nonprofit Hunger Games. Funders fear the death of their credibility, so they invest in safe and proven strategies.

Second, like Vladimir and Estragon, the nonprofit sector is trying to find its place, to find meaning in a world full of injustice and absurdity. It is not easy. Recently we’ve been seeing increasing forces trying to push us to become more like for-profits. We have an inferiority complex. We are still insecure about our identity as a sector. It doesn’t help that we don’t have a single damn TV show about our work!

The point of this post is that our sector has been in the grip of fear and uncertainty long enough. So much of our time is spent waiting: waiting for funding to arrive, waiting for acceptance from society. But our sector is full of brilliant people who can do so much if they are freed from the clutches of fear, and our community cannot afford for us to not realize that. We have to understand the conscious and unconscious forces driving our work. We must take more risks, because it’s too risky not to. And with that, we must accept failures more often.

And we must accept death: The potential death of our jobs, of our organizations, of our foundations, of programs, of existing paradigms, of the way things have been. Only by embracing fear, risk, failure, and death, can our sector reach its full potential. We are the Godot we have been waiting for.

Let me know if that makes any sense at all, and whether you agree.

Go Hawks…sigh….

Just a quick reminder that the Nonprofit Scary Story Contest (scroll to bottom) entries are due today at 11:59pm. Submit your 500-word stories to autumn-19440_640nonprofitawesomeness@gmail.com, along with a quick paragraph about your org. You can also request to be anonymous, and I’ll send you unicorn stickers if you win. 

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19 thoughts on “Waiting for the dough: How fear and other existential forces affect the nonprofit sector

  1. Cindy HI

    Thank you again for another post that voices the disquiet I live with as an non-profit leader. The not so fun part is that we are not able to share the fears we all live with and how hard we must work to not let them rule us. Go Giants!

  2. Voice of Reason

    Spot on Vu. I think a lot about shifting our frame from how bad it will be if we don’t change to how awesome it will be when we do. We know from people who have studied how people move from behaviors that are hurtful to affirming and life giving ones that we must pass through a series of phases. The first phase is the “if only” phase in which we believe the only way forward is some kind of Godot. People who work with change of behavior say there is no way to get people to change behavior without meeting them in this place of fear. The next stage is “what if.” One foot is firmly in the terror of “if only” and the other is in the place of possibility. …even if tentatively. Our sector rocks at seeing possibility. We as leaders must cultivate this seeing of what is possible as a state of being based on the principle that each of us is enough. We have enough. We are enough…even when we are living and breathing the world of “if only.”. What we are called to do is to put a philosophy of radical love into action and bake it into our communities. It starts with owning what scares us…to death. Thanks as always for bringing us together in our collective enoughness Vu.

  3. Lindsay Anne

    Interesting point from an industry who always pretends to say it’s job is to “put itself out of business” – we all know thats not true, and why the NPIC has been intentionally slow to take risks that would help those they serve

  4. Irene

    One of the requirements I wanted to include in my most recent development job posting was: “Must not fear death”. Staff talked me out of it, but it’s what I tell people during their first interview. Anyone who fears the unknown won’t be good enough for our org. So right on!

  5. K Irene Stone

    Speaking of fear, I received notification today from a foundation who was fearful of
    telling me outright that, no, they would not be accepting my LOI.
    Instead I got the verbiage “Because the Foundation continues to devote a
    substantial portion of its grant funds to a number of large-scale
    Foundation-initiated projects, we are unable to offer any strong encouragement
    to most organizations regarding the possibility of a grant from us at this
    time.” I assume this is a “no” as their postscript mentioned the
    hope that I had better success elsewhere, so I am filing the grant under
    “declined” on my poor grant activity spreadsheet. In the
    event that there’s a snowball chance in hell that we do get funded, I will let
    myself be pleasantly surprised instead of holding my breath, yes, also in fear,
    for another six months.

  6. Devra Thomas

    Spot on. And as someone who works in nonprofit theater management (and arts advocacy), thanks for the Godot reference.

  7. Becca

    1. Wait, Ace makes a blackberry pear cider? (I am familiar with the delicious pear one, but I didn’t know of all of this variation!)

    2. Yes to everything above. In addition to stifling innovation, I feel like I’m constantly stuck in “fight for your life” mode, because my organization is so worried about getting through the next crisis. It leads to burnout, and it means our focus is taken away from making real change.

  8. Harvey Chess

    Thanks, Vu. Maybe we should wish the Hawks keep losing if this is what it takes for an excellent, properly provocative piece such as this. From my book, Functional and Funded, mailed in your direction awhile back – did you look it over?- a variation on this theme that goes: “As you read and re-read this book, and decide to use what it offers to guide your resource development efforts, keep the following in mind. May you and yours succeed in accomplishing the mission that drew you together in the first place. That way you can regroup and reinvigorate your commitment to help other people help themselves secure a higher quality of life, secure in the knowledge that you just succeeded, and that there’s bound to be more work to do.” Offered by me as its 77-year-old author and member of a group that meets once a week to discuss in depth living as fully as possible by embracing the inevitability of death.

  9. Jane Leu

    You nailed it, Vu. The fear is paralyzing everyone in this sector. We should have a fear amnesty day – where we all get to say/do the thing we fear the most with no penalty. I also recommend Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Just read it and guess what, none of us are getting out of here alive so we might as well take more risks and be the Godots we are waiting for while we’re here.

  10. Melissa

    This post really resonated with me. I recently moved from a large urban nonprofit where I was able to take lots of risks with org chart and programming, to a very small rural nonprofit where risks have to be very carefully managed or we will put ourselves out of business. What’s risky here is actually pretty far behind the times for the field, but we can only inch ahead on the tightrope so quickly, as falling off has pretty dire consequences. I would say that the fear we have is pretty real in terms of consequences of poor investments or risks that “don’t work out.” I am a full believer in the importance of failure, but also well aware that risk tolerance is going to be different for different organizations, and hope that funders (and EDs) recognize that when they judge something as “not risky.”

  11. Melissa

    On your “Waiting for the Dough” column: thanks so much for this line: “It fears nonprofit staff having excessively high salaries.” I doubled over laughing.

  12. Uni Cornio

    First comment: “The board” recently added the phrase “Innovative” to our mission statement. I’m not sure they thought about the fact that true innovation, not simply creativity, requires funders who are ok with failure. It’s so difficult to get funding for anything other than “evidence-based” programs these days. I wish banks would offer low interest loans to non profits so we can pay for innovation and scaling.

    Second comment: I can think of one particular funder to whom I would LOVE to give some honest feedback! I have no idea how to do that without totally compromising the various programs his govt dept funds. My staff and I are regularly put in compromising positions and rudely communicated to whenever he feels we don’t do a good enough job meeting his often uncommunicated expectations with the spare budget he gives us to work with. Some days, I want to meet with all of his grantees and organize a coup. Today is one of those days. In fact, the story my staff just told me would be great for the scary story contest. Sigh.

  13. Ombeady

    Where’s my ACE blackberry pear cider, Trader Joe’s???? Why are you holding out on me?
    Now that I’ve got that off my chest….. I’m much happier now that I’ve failed and suffered the death of my job. What I was afraid of happening for the ten years that I ran a nonprofit organization happened and I’m still ok. (So far.) The organization may still fail, but at least I’m no longer responsible. And yes, I experienced almost every one of the fears that you list. You are so right. Maybe if I had faced each one of those fears head-on and dealt with them, the organization would be better off. So there it is. It’s still all my fault. Can you cover our feelings of guilt next?

  14. Midwest Grantwriter

    Year-to-year funding stifles innovation and leaves us hesitant to dream much beyond the end of the fiscal year. It perpetuates a fearful climate…can we afford to invest in a part-time program assistant? Should we go ahead and sign the long-term lease on a better copy machine? If more funders invested in multi-year grants we could breathe a little easier. And not feel a need to drink hard cider by 3:00 every afternoon.

  15. verucaamish

    Here’s why I am risk averse – the whole build the plane as you fly in mentality. There’s so much emphasis on making things look new and shiny that we often are creating things out of thin air. Sometimes I am hesitant to do the NEW thing because, I’m still figuring out if the old thing is actually effective or not. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel but often times we are asked to move at such a quick pace there’s no time to reflect which meant we did recreate things that already existed. It would be great to replicate what you did right to know what were the elements to make it right and what do you need to discard.

  16. Katie Kosseff

    Great post, Vu. Agreed about the “fear of death.” I do think that funding structures for nonprofits have done a lot to perpetuate a “for each his or her own” mentality in the growth of individual nonprofits. I have the utmost gratitude for and respect for funders who reward collaboration amongst nonprofits that might otherwise see themselves as “competitors.” I think nonprofit leaders–really good and brave leaders–also have a role to play in connecting with other providers even at risk of merging and losing their own nonprofit’s identity.

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