There is often the complaint that we have too many nonprofits in our sector. I don’t necessarily agree, and in fact I think that when it comes to some types of nonprofits, such as certain ones led by marginalized communities, we may need MORE, not fewer. But that’s for a future conversation.
However, I do think we have organizations that are floating aimlessly around the sector in a state of limbo. Over the past few months, I’ve heard at least two stories of these orgs that are holding on for dear life, and not for the usual “holding on for dear life” that most nonprofits do as par for the course. These orgs have missions that were once vital, but as needs change, or as other organizations overtake them in effectiveness, or both, they find themselves in denial about their own effectiveness and relevance. They become “zombie missions.” This usually leads to a lack of direction and purpose, perpetual morale issues, and constant staff turnover.
And it is sad, because these orgs have usually done important work; they do not deserve this limbo-like state of existence. Here are things we should consider:
We need to let go of the idea that all nonprofits (and foundations) need to exist indefinitely. Because injustice is ongoing and the needs that we’re trying to address are constant and often increasing, we’ve internalized this idea that when a nonprofit is founded, it should keep going forever. The idea manifests in the ridiculous question funders ask about sustainability, for example. Let’s get out of this mindset. Some nonprofits should exist for as long as the work is needed. Others should exist for a specific amount of time to do a particular task, and upon completion, they should be allowed to fade gracefully into the sunset.
We need to constantly examine whether our mission is still relevant: Nonprofits often do strategic planning processes that include an analysis of how community needs have changed. Responsive nonprofits will adjust their missions and programming accordingly. Rarely though have I seen nonprofits ask the explicit question of “should we even continue to exist?” I think all nonprofits at least every five years should ask themselves and their community this question and be receptive to the answers. Because of the high level of inequity that we’re dealing with, the answers is likely going to be yes. But we need to stop assuming that it always is.
We need to consider whether other organizations are more effective: Of the two organizations I mentioned at the beginning of this article, they are both in communities where there are other nonprofits doing similar work, but arguably better. It can be a painful realization causing all sorts of existential angst, especially if the founder is still there. But it doesn’t have to be just painful. It can be hopeful to know that the work continues in good hand. Or it can even be considered a sign of success. As a colleague who left one of these zombie missions told me: “They inspired the founding of this other org that is doing amazing work. They should be proud of that accomplishment and close shop!”
We need to be honest about whether the org’s existence is tied to individuals’ egos: Sometimes zombie missions happen because there’s a founder and this nonprofit is their baby, and their board members are often loyal friends who won’t be honest with them. Or there could be a new leader who is trying to prove themselves capable of turning a failing org around. On occasion it works; I’ve seen nonprofits that have amazing turnarounds and become highly effective and relevant. But this is not always the case. Leaders, whether founders or not, need to be honest with themselves about whether their time is done, whether they’ve put in a valiant effort to right the ship, and whether it may be time for their organization to have a graceful end.
We need to let go of the idea that shutting down equates to failure: This is a philosophy that is pervasive in society, that if something doesn’t last, it means you failed at it. Romantic relationships, for example. Just because people split up, it doesn’t mean the relationship “failed.” That is a very narrow and binary view; it dismisses the meaningful time spent together, the memories made, the successes achieved in partnership, the personal growth experienced, etc. The same with nonprofits and movements. Just because a nonprofit or movement’s existence ends should not negate all the incredible work that it has done and all the contributions it’s made to the community. Its ending may mark a vital and successful run that should be celebrated.
We need more support to guide nonprofits in closing down: There are tons of support for people who want to start nonprofits. I see few workshops, resources, and discussions regarding nonprofits that may consider shutting down. State associations, capacity builders, and other support organizations can play a role in normalizing that it’s OK to close and providing advice on how to do it, which may include technical things like how to transfer assets, potential annexations of programs by other nonprofits, legal compliance, etc. We also need more conversations on and support around leaders’ existential angst, necessary grief and mourning, and celebration of the good work that’s been accomplished.
Nonprofits and movements often do important stuff. But like so many of us, they too have a lifespan from birth to maturity to death. Some may last a long time, with no end in the foreseeable future. But this should not be the fate of all organizations. Let’s not condemn every mission to that sort of existential purgatory, where it fades to a shell of its former glory. For some organizations, it is enough for them to exist, do their work during a finite period, and rest with our appreciation for the role they played in the fight for a better world.