Why the nonprofit sector moves slowly

Recently I heard a telling narrative about the “old days” at some of the big American foundations.

The old-school modus operandi of these foundations (more recently than I’d have thought, closer to 20 years ago than 50) was a program officer locked away in her office for months, drafting PhD-type documents explaining a theory of change and a grant strategy. These documents would wend their way up to the Foundation President who would inevitably send them back with long and detailed critiques, asking for the next draft. Years could pass in this back-and-forth.

The apocryphal version of this story was that by version 16 version of the paper, an exasperated program officer would just send back the original draft….which would then get approved.

We’ve come a long way in the nonprofit sector, but we still are, by and large, slower than we should be.

Part of the cause is the looseness inherent in the kinds of financial transactions we engage in. There’s an organizational culture multiplier around how we act when money changes hands: years couldn’t pass if there were a real customer waiting to buy a real product from that program officer.  “Budgets” are just that – intentions and plans – and they operate with a different logic and profoundly less urgency than accounts payable and working capital. We convince ourselves that we are prioritizing getting things right, when all we’re really doing is letting another month slip by.

Because we mostly lack the tight and consistent drumbeat of traditional financial transactions – of buying and selling – we have to do extra work to create cultures of hard deadlines. These days we talk a good game about moving fast and being nimble, but the pendulum is just starting to swing in the right direction. To keep the momentum going, we need to make sure we ask ourselves questions like:

  • When we have a deadline, what happens when our intention to move fast hits up against our desire to get things right?
  • How often do we break an established process to keep a promise to make a call by a given date and time?
  • When a key decision-maker is unavailable to join a decision-making meeting, does the meeting get rescheduled?
  • Do we regularly track and review the external promises we make and how good we are at keeping them?
  • If we posed a free response question to our customers asking them to describe us, how sure are we that nobody would say “slow”?

Often we’re so busy asking those around us about their process and their results that we forget to look at ourselves in the mirror.

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