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.

Imagined Distance

Every nonprofit fundraising campaign is about closing the imagined distance between a person and an issue.

The imagined distance between health today and a potential disease tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and someone who is suffering from that disease today.

The imagined distance between the safety you feel today and the potential of being a victim tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and the person who is a victim today.

The imagined distance between the rights you take as a given today and the loss of those rights tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and a person who does not have those same rights today.

The imagined distance between me and you, when “you” is someone I think I don’t know, someone I think is different from me, someone I have been choosing to look away from.

Once it’s revealed and felt that this distance is just a mirage, a construct that allows us to hide from our shared connection and shared humanity, then and only then is it time to explain why your organization, your intervention, your solution is going to make a difference.

But step 1 is to break down those walls – walls that create safety but that also create separation.

Because, ultimately, while safety creates comfort, it doesn’t hold a candle to what people really crave: connection, meaning, and a sense of purpose.

Getting through the troughs

I was talking to a nonprofit Executive Director last week about fundraising. We spent most of our time unpacking the heart of every fundraising meeting: the energy you bring into the room.

It’s not just important, it is everything. No matter the words you say, if you say them without the other person being able to feel them then the meeting has already failed.

But what do you do if you’ve had a bad run and you’re not feeling the mojo? Maybe it’s been a tough month or quarter and you can’t seem to put a smile on your face and “stay positive?”

My take is: don’t try to fake it.

Of course you have to be professional, and fundamentally you have to retain your long-term optimism and your deep belief that you’ll get big things done—if you don’t believe in you, no one will. But overly polishing and buffing your delivery will fail most of the time.

Inauthenticity is like a single poisonous drop that contaminates the entire cup of water. Rather than slap on a can-do attitude, bring your truth in that moment into the room. Be willing to lay it bare.

If things are hard, if you are feeling frustrated, if you don’t know how you’re going to storm the next hill, don’t complain, but don’t hide that away. Show faith and trust in the person you’re speaking with; have the confidence to share the real.

Sharing this truth might help you discover what’s really going on, and it will certainly communicate that you need actual help and that this meeting isn’t just another meeting. That’s an honest ask for support that, at a minimum, will be met with humanity and, in most cases, action.

People are craving this sort of connection, and they are more likely to help if they understand that they can, actually, help. Seeing your willingness to be authentic lets them understand the kind of partner you’ll be to them in the long haul—especially when the chips are down.

A philanthropy problem

The easiest thing to forget when you are raising funds is this:

Philanthropists have a philanthropy problem

By “philanthropists” I mean people who consistently engage in philanthropy–people for whom philanthropy an important part of what they do and who they are.

Someone who has the means, the values and the practice of being active philanthropically has, by definition, a philanthropy problem. She has a set of things she is trying to make happen in the world through her philanthropy. Her problem is that it is hard to do great philanthropy, it is hard to find great people and great organizations, and it is hard to make change in the world.

Fundraisers and nonprofit professionals forget this. Maybe we find it hard to relate because we don’t feel like we have a philanthropy problem (though that’s an easy issue to address: the more we give philanthropically the more we will get in touch with this feeling.)

But mostly I think it’s a comingling two things: an overall sense of fear and intimidation (of the philanthropist—which neither she nor we want) and our lack of empathy.

The fear is connected to our misplaced sense of worth–that somehow this thing we are doing might not really be “worth it” (in every sense) and, by association, worthy of support–and, as a result, a sense that we’re intruding on the philanthropists life and time.

The lack of empathy is connected to that fear–this time our fear that we will fail in this meeting, which causes us to be centered on our selves and our worries. This chatter overwhelms our clear thinking and our open hearts. So we close our eyes to the experience of the person with whom we are trying to connect, and we lose sight of the fact that we are showing up with a solution to her problem.

Since colorful stories and images are the best way to cement memories in our brains, here’s a too-loud version of this situation from This American Life Episode 319: Cars. It’s not a perfect analogy by any stretch–there’s not a lot of heart opening and genuine connection in the car-buying business–but it shines a light on how easy it is to forget that the person in the “showroom” is there because she is has a problem she’s come there to solve.

The speaker is Sal Lanzilotta, a manager at the Chrysler Town & Country dealership in Long Island. He’s giving his salespeople a pep talk:

Sal Lanzilotta

Customer says they’re not ready to buy a car. They’re all not ready to buy a car. Let’s go over it again. They’re in a car dealership.

They got in their car, drove through hell to get here, looked for a parking spot for 10 minutes, parked, got out of the car, and walked into a car dealer, not because the coffee’s good. We went over this, because the coffee here is not good. They came here because we sell cars, and they want to buy one.

The philanthropist is sitting across from us with a philanthropy problem to solve. We are sitting across from the philanthropist with a solution that makes difference. Why do we act like we have to start with an apology?

When we boil it all down, I wonder if where we keep tripping up is in forgetting that what we have on offer is way more valuable than a car.

Here’s what you’ve been able to do

The Citibike app has a nice new feature, a pull-down menu that shows information on your latest ride and on your cumulative rides.*

It’s pretty cool to see that I’ve done 613 rides for 113 hours, covering nearly 700 miles. I never would have known that, and this helps me see the impact of Citibike on my life and my health in a new way.Citibike_IMG_4550So often when we engage with donors it’s about the next thing they could do if they give again. Most organizations miss opportunities to thank and honor people, and more still forget to make it easy for people to see the cumulative effect of their giving – what it all adds up to.

“Here is how much you have given, and here is what has been possible because of that.”

When we share that cumulative effect with others, we empower them to see how important they have been. And they’ll be much less willing to let go of that feeling, of their connection to your organization, once they understand what it all adds up to.

 

*P.S. Dear Citibike, the distances calculated seem about 30% less than the figures from Google maps.  That 1.7 mile ride (above) is apparently 2.4 miles long.  Just goes to show, once you start sharing this kind of data, people care about it a lot.

The $30 million question

I’ve just heard a story of a major nonprofit organization that receives tens of millions of dollars annually from a single donor – around half of its operating budget – but is laying off staff because they don’t have enough unrestricted operating cash.

Again, Dan Pallotta’s awesome TED talk notwithstanding, we find ourselves having the same conversation, one that boils down to: is it a wasteful to pay nonprofit professionals to do their jobs well?

I wonder if it is we in the nonprofit space who need more guts when we take on this question. Maybe it’s time to say something along the lines of, “if you want your money to go directly into the hands of very poor people who need it, you should do just that and give to Give Directly.” GiveDirectly is optimized for this, they are efficient and transparent in their operations, they rigorously study their results, and they’ve shown the effectiveness of direct cash transfers for creating both short- and long-term improvements in people’s lives. It’s a completely legitimate way to help others, and it’s a great benchmark against which to measure our work.

“Or,” we should have the courage to continue, “you can have the point of view that the programmatic work that we’re doing is better than giving cash.” “Better” can be because it does different things (fights corruption); “better” can be because the impact of giving a dollar is more than $1 (investing in a scalable social business); “better” can be because of long-term return on investing that’s higher than the social return on giving cash (supporting a child’s education).

“But,” we should be sure to say, “if you believe that the IT that we do matters, if you believe that there is something real that we are bringing to the table that goes above and beyond your money ending up in the hands of someone who will benefit from it, then you’re saying that our judgment, our relationships, our expertise, our capacity for oversight, and our ability to create leverage for each dollar you give is real. This means that you trust this judgement and our expertise. So please give in a way that respects that judgment and expertise, or don’t give at all.”

Our homework is to really look in the mirror and evaluate why what we’re doing is, in fact, better than the money going directly to our beneficiaries. And, once we’ve sorted that out, we must have the courage to make that case and the willingness to look someone in the eye and say, “if you don’t believe this, then you shouldn’t give to us in the first place.”

On Behalf of Me

With just a week to go until the New Year, now is the time to reflect on 2014 and to thank those around us for all the help and support they have brought to us and to others.

It is also a big time for online donations. For reasons that have something to do with the tax deadline but more to do with ritual and habit, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and especially December 30th and 31st, are the biggest days all year for online donations. Naturally, our inboxes are flooded with some combination of “thank you’s” and “it’s your last chance to give.”

I am happy to receive the subset of these emails that are from people I actually know or from people who are thanking me for things I actually did.

What drives me bonkers are the emails from organizations, emails that have no name attached to them and where I cannot reply and get to an actual, identifiable human being on the other end. I don’t want to be thanked by an organization, asked for anything from an organization, or wished happy holidays on behalf of anyone but a real, living, breathing person.

It may feel overwhelming to imagine the logistics of hearing back from, and then having to reply to, the too-many people who might respond to your email. But then it’s time to ask whether it makes sense to send that email in the first place. Any correspondence you initiate in which getting a response from the recipient will be a problem and not an opportunity….well, that isn’t a correspondence, it’s spam.

To get tactical for a second, there are four places where your name can (or cannot) show up in the emails you send:

  1. The “From” name that appears in someone’s email client
  2. The associated email address
  3. The name that is signed at the bottom of the email
  4. The email address that comes up when someone hits reply to your note (not always the same as #2)

At least three of these four should be names of living, breathing, human beings.  And I should never, ever hit “reply” and have the To: field read anything like us3-a22c2dfe-1779e987@conversation01.mailchimpapp.com

On behalf of me, and only me, happy holidays.