Not ANOTHER Nonprofit

About a year ago I was teaching a class on fundraising for a local university. Bright kids, good questions. After the session, they worked on an assignment, and I lingered to help out. Not after too long, one student approached with a question that didn’t really fit the scope of the class. When I asked her to clarify, she responded: “Because I want to start my own nonprofit.” 


Disappointment, personified.

I’m not one to crush dreams, though in that moment I felt like the Hulk (smash). She went on to explain what her nonprofit would do, which was to provide super-specialized care to a hyper-select population of women-in-need. Essentially, Planned Parenthood with a different logo.

We see this a lot in the field. Eager, emerging nonprofiteers who have so much energy, they just want to get out and do their own thing. They’re everywhere, and truth be told, many of them are great, energizing colleagues. BUT. I believe wholly in the process of experience, through which we often learn about doing our best work by being part of something, rather than being our own something. [Aside: At the end of the movie SLC Punk, after years of fighting the establishment, the main punk yields and decides to become a lawyer, noting: “We can do a hell of a lot more damage in the system than outside of it.”]

In Houston (Harris County) where I live, there are over 26,000 nonprofits. That’s nearly one organization per 175 people — numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole truth. Many of these institutions are doing fine work, great work. However, unless this student herself had the answer to all women’s reproductive issues — and I doubt she did — I felt compelled to encourage her to spend some time working in and around the field. You know, before making the leap to incorporating, identifying a board, filing with the state/IRS, putting together an inaugural fundraising plan, crafting a marketing/branding strategy, etc., etc., etc.

There are some great, new nonprofits out there. Some have found a niche, aren’t duplicative in their efforts and have traction — I volunteer on the board for one such organization, and got involved because of the founder’s passion. We did it the right way by putting together a strong team that is playing the long game. I suppose that’s my takeaway: make moves, but first take baby steps.


…Thank You?

It’s a simple enough thing, saying “thank you.” It doesn’t even need to be those exact words — Thanks so much! Appreciate it! Xièxiè! With much ease, there are myriad ways to show gratitude. It’s the only sentiment I know in nine different languages, because I wholly believe it’s that important. And it’s one of the most glaring missed opportunities I’ve found in nonprofits.

I had a manager once who seemed allergic to the words. Even some of the worst bosses feign being grateful… sociopathically. However, I can count on one hand the number of times this particular one actually took a moment to thank me, or anyone for that matter. I can’t tell you how crappy that made me feel on almost a daily basis.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not (entirely) needy. Not every single thing done needs an overwhelming display of recognition. But I tell you what… in all my years seeing people disenfranchised with, or because of nonprofit work, never once was it the result of too much appreciation. Have you ever known someone who left an organization because they were thanked too often?

There’s no great mystery to it, and I once neatly heard the concept phrased as an attitude of gratitude. And I really do think it can be an attitude or, more specifically, a behavior.

I have really fond memories of a peer who really lived this attitude. He was the organization’s tech/AV/guru-of-all-things; you know, one of those positions that works 100-hour weeks with little praise. He approached every single interaction with grace, even (and especially) if it didn’t go smoothly. He would always thank me for my time and my input, and it made me value his time and input even more.

All this is to say… approach your work and your colleagues as if their support is welcome, and makes a difference, even if it’s that one boss who never does the same for you. You’ll thank yourself for it later.


Morvanic Lee (Unsplash)


Weightlifting and Work

My wife and I exercise at LA Fitness. I don’t know about all their locations, but the one near us is filled with lots of DudeBros. If that’s an unfamiliar term, let me clarify. You can most easily recognize a DudeBro by some of the following traits:

  • Grunting (often)
  • Taking up multiple machines at one time
  • An overwhelming scent of Axe Body Spray
  • Meandering around the gym using their phone

Apart from all that, you will often find them trying unsuccessfully to lift more weight than they can manage. That, my friends, is a problem I notice all the time around the nonprofit world.

It’s okay for something to be a challenge. Some of the best colleagues I know are people who thrive under a little pressure. However, if there’s any chance you can’t finish what you started, re-think what you’re doing or ask for some help. This could be one of the myriad reasons there is mind-boggling turnover in our field. Someone lands somewhere, bites off more than they can chew, and then they flee. Heck, in fundraising the average tenure is only 16 months; that’s not even enough time to figure out where they keep the good coffee.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. A lot of it relates to hiring practices, how honest the organization is when it brings in someone new (so do all the staff have to pick up the ED’s kid from daycare?), the environment and so on.

But seriously, think of your efforts in your jobs much like you would weightlifting — don’t lift it up if you can’t see it through. Rant, over.


It’s Leadership, Stupid

Great leaders are everywhere — in corporations, nonprofits and even in athletics. Recently I observed leadership in a group of runners taking cues from their trailblazer. She was shepherding the group forward, motivating them the entire way, because that’s what a leader does.

We want the same to be true with 501(c)(3) leaders. Staff and volunteers should be inspired by them, collaborators should enjoy working with them and they must resonate with donors. Once I worked with a small cultural organization where we tested this concept.

We were producing a brand new artistic performance, which was unquestionably the spotlight program of the year. It required some inventive fundraising, so our chief development officer (CDO) outlined a solid strategy. Through rigorous efforts, this led to cultivation of one particularly generous donor (let’s call this person “Major Donor”) whose support totaled 50% of our revenue goals. Huzzah!

The CDO departed soon after, and following some development staff restructuring, the executive director (ED) made the questionable choice to take on the lion’s share of fundraising. When the performances finally arrived, the ED’s behavior — disinterest in understanding basic performance etiquette, lack of presence and uninformed communication with Major Donor — led to unfortunate missed stewardship opportunities. After much damage control, Major Donor was pleased, and saw their philanthropy bring the performance to life. (Note: Performances continue to this day, supported still by Major Donor.)

This was an arts experience, though key takeaways can apply to all organizations contemplating or evaluating leadership:

  • Find leadership with a love for the mission. There are certain skills that can be learned, though passion is not one of them. If a savvy leader is truly interested in committing to an organization, their commitment is more likely to permeate beliefs and behaviors.
  • Reality-based understanding of what an organization does and how it happens goes a long way. Engagement stems from mission delivery, and a mission is carried out through programs, special events and other endeavors. Constituents get involved in personally meaningful ways, and leaders will serve best if they take the time to match their interests with an institution’s real abilities.
  • For those who have found their mission-driven, pragmatic leaders, proper staffing is really important. This doesn’t always translate to the ED or CDO being on hand at all times. It means that during those times of mission delivery — performance, 5k run/walk, clothing drive — the right leadership is present, valuing the mission and managing stakeholder expectations in real time.

George Harrison mused “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Organizations often know their destination — balanced budgets, thriving programming, engaged staff, happy constituents — and intelligible, bold leaders can absolutely shepherd the journey.