Hey, you want nonprofits to act more like businesses? Then treat us like businesses

bitmoji-20151213223903A couple of months ago I was at a conference, and during lunch the keynote speaker got up and paced the stage and mentioned several times about how we nonprofits need to be more like for-profits. Despite the two drinks I had had that morning—stop judging; it was a Saturday—I found myself getting more and more irritated. This happens over and over. Seriously, if I hear one more person blather on and on about how we primitive, inept do-gooders should learn from our sophisticated siblings from the business sector and get into earned-income and blah blah, I’m going to roll my eyes so hard that they will pop out of my head, and then I will have to find them to put them back in my eye sockets but I won’t be able to see so I will have to feel around on the floor to find them while freaked-out passers-by scream all around me.

Our nonprofit sector has an identity issue, and I think we should resolve this if we are going to reach our potential. Are we nonprofits businesses, or are we something else entirely? I’ve talked to lots of nonprofit leaders who are proud of their work and who say, “Nonprofit businesses are businesses! But instead of making money for our stockholders, we create dividends in benefits to the community!”

But lately, I’ve started wondering if perpetuating this philosophy is actually harming us. Ideally, yes, we are businesses, and we should be accorded the same level of respect. But the frustrating reality is that we are judged as businesses without given the rights and resources to fully operate as businesses. If funders and donors and society want us to be like businesses, then fine, but we also need the following:   Continue reading “Hey, you want nonprofits to act more like businesses? Then treat us like businesses”

The Nonprofit Hunger Games, and what we must do to end them

Katniss-Violence-Mockingjay-2A while ago, at a leadership seminar I was a participant in, I sat down at a random table and met a really nice older couple, along with another participant in the program, “Jane.” We all got to talking, and it turned out the two seniors were major donors to Jane’s organization who also happened to like Vietnamese food. I said, “Hey, I know a great Vietnamese restaurant! I’d love to take you sometime. Maybe the four of us could get lunch together.”

There was a 20-second stare down between Jane and me. The breeze died. Tumbleweeds rolled in the background, and a horse snorted nervously. Vultures circled overhead. “Yes…” said Jane, “I’ll connect all of us.” She never did. I ran into her at another event, and she introduced me to others as “The guy who tried to poach my donors.”

Why am I telling this story? One, to warn Jane that I will not rest until I find those donors, and I will have lunch with them, and I will persuade them to donate to my organization, and she won’t be able to stop me, because I will not sleep or eat until I share spring rolls with peanut sauce with them and a check is in my hands, muwahahahahahahah! MUWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Two, to illustrate the fact that the Nonprofit Hunger Games are going too far and are destructive to our sector’s collective mission of making the world better. Continue reading “The Nonprofit Hunger Games, and what we must do to end them”

Standardized answers to the Sustainability Question

beach-690125_960_720Hi everyone, last week the Chronicle of Philanthropy published a piece I wrote on the Sustainability Myth. Warning: The piece is for paid subscribers, but it was adapted from this post—“Can we all just admit there is no such thing as nonprofit sustainability?”—which you should check out, since it talks about teeth tattoos, which is an earned-income strategy I am working on in order to increase my organization’s “sustainability.” Tattoos on one’s canines and incisors will be the next big thing in society, trust me, and my organization is going to ride that wave.

Recently I wrote a grant proposal for $30,000, and of course, at the end, there it was, the Sustainability Question. “How will you sustain your program when support from the XYZ foundation runs out?” I took a deep breath. And by “taking a deep breath,” I meant chugging a mini bottle of vodka I keep in my laptop bag. Then I looked at pictures of cute baby animals. That always helps me to calm down. Continue reading “Standardized answers to the Sustainability Question”

“Dancing with Program Officers” and 5 other nonprofit-themed reality TV shows we need

audience-868074_960_720So many of the challenges the nonprofit sector faces exist because of our poor portrayal in the media. This is why I think we should lobby for more shows that highlight the exciting and complex work all of us in the field are doing. A while ago I wrote about “Nonprofit and Afraid,” a show where people who have little experience with nonprofits are put to work at a nonprofit for six weeks. Here are some other ideas I’ve thought of, and sneak previews of what they might look like:

Dancing with Program Officers:

12 nonprofit staff are paired with 12 program officers of local foundations to learn various funding dances, including the “Should I call them first or should I just send in the LOI?” and “Who should pay for lunch?”

Emcee: On the floor now are Alan and Marjorie. Alan, the DD of Think of the Children, has been having trouble rehearsing for the Site Visit Dance, a nerve-wracking number with feints and swirls. Marjorie, his partner and program officer at the Swifter Foundation, has been supportive in her coaching. Let’s see how they fare tonight:

Alan: Thanks for coming down to see our program in action, Margaret. I’m sorry, I mean Marjorie…

Marjorie: No problem, people get that wrong all the time. I should just change it, ha ha.

Emcee: An understandable stumble, given his nerves, and a graceful recovery, but our panel of judges does not look happy.

Alan: This year, we served 390 kids, 85% free-and-reduced-lunch, through four programs…

Marjorie: That’s wonderful. What are some of the results you’ve seen?

Emcee: The Site Visit Dance is a tricky dance, since it combines both technicality and heart. Alan is relying too much on technique. He needs to bring more heart, more stories. Let’s hope he doesn’t flub this one like he did last week in the “Clarifying Questions on the Proposal Budget” dance. Continue reading ““Dancing with Program Officers” and 5 other nonprofit-themed reality TV shows we need”

Can we all just admit there is no such thing as nonprofit sustainability?

fish-959636_640pdA few weeks ago I called up a program officer of a foundation to discuss my organization’s amazing idea to bring more immigrant and refugee leaders into the nonprofit field. “That’s a great idea,” said the program officer, “but what’s your sustainability plan? We don’t tend to support projects unless we know they will be financially independent in the future.”

“Well,” I said, “I have a great plan for that. Have you heard of teeth tattoo? No? You will! Dental adornment is going to be the latest thing, believe you me. Think about it: the Seahawks logo on your incisors! We will open a teeth tattoo parlor, and it will generate literally billions of dollars, enough to fund the project forever. But we need seed money. So how about 50K from you guys?”

All right, I didn’t say that. I waffled something that sounded intelligent—“We are building up our base of individual donors, establishing relationships with local businesses, and using the Synergistic Paradigm Action Matrix in order to find the nexus between our strategies and adaptive advantage”—like a good grantseeker is trained to do.  We talked some more. Then I hung up and unwrapped a bar of dark chocolate and ate it, both me and the chocolate 72% bitter.

Continue reading “Can we all just admit there is no such thing as nonprofit sustainability?”