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. 

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page and enter in your email address. Also, join the NWB Facebook community for daily hilarity.