Dear Nonprofit Leader,
It’s time you and I had a serious chat.
I know we haven’t met before, but you might recognize me as the girl who has been trying to get you fired.
Now before you go flying off the handle, just hear me out for a minute. Contrary to the current assumptions running through your head, I’m actually off-the-charts passionate about philanthropy. I love conversations that ignite people to make a difference. I love that moment when the light bulb goes off for someone — you see their eyes glaze as they lose themselves in the awareness that they really do have a skill, talent, or resource that can change a life. One day when I convince someone to let me on the TED stage, I’m going to talk about the power of philanthropy in our lives. But I digress…
Interacting with people like you sparks my energy. I know running a nonprofit can seem downright impossible sometimes. It feels like you aren’t making the difference you dream about. Board development, fundraising, stewardship, event planning, social media, program implementation … the list is endless. But, when I hear you talk about breathing life into the organization and share the stories that transcend your work … well, it is hard not to dive in beside you and get my hands dirty.
Suffice it to say, I’m your cheerleader. I’ve also walked a few miles in your shoes in my professional career. And as a volunteer, well, I’ve been everything from a VP of Marketing to a retreat director to a race chair to a committee member to a graphic design guru.
But I’ve got to tell you, with myriad hours spent in this space, the nonprofit world has a few cracks that are only getting deeper.
I recently came across a gut-wrenching statistic. Did you know there are over 1.5 million nonprofits registered with the IRS?
When I decided to start a small business, many questioned why I didn’t develop a nonprofit. They knew my passion for several causes and had listened (repeatedly) to my visions for how to be more effective. So, why didn’t I go the nonprofit route?
Because that number stopped me in my tracks.
Even if every one of these organizations was considered small, imagine the amount of administrative costs that go into running 1.5 million businesses. My brain immediately started calculating the repeat expenses that come from managing countless nonprofits raising money for the exact same cause.
My head continued to spin and my stomach tightened as I reflected on my experiences in the nonprofit realm. I remembered the ugly air of competition that exists in this massive sector. We run down rabbit holes after seeing the success of someone else’s strategy, only to end up distracted from our own organization’s objectives. Ultimately, we attempt to execute a poorly formulated approach instead of a clear, mission-driven plan.
I’ve also witnessed the comparison monster rear its ugly head in more than one nonprofit. People becoming bitter and discouraged about why a similar organization gets more social media likes, obtains more media coverage, raises more money.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t we all fighting the same battle? If another organization “wins,” don’t we all win?
Have we really replaced collaboration with competition in the nonprofit world?
I understand why nonprofits seem to grow on trees. Personal experience largely influences the decision to walk this entrepreneurial/philanthropic journey. Our hearts play an abundant role in our belief that we can change the story. We can leave a legacy that honors a journey, a lost loved one, a troubled upbringing. And those are admirable, sincere reasons to want to embark on altering an experience for others.
But a collaborative approach doesn’t mean our reasons have to change. In fact, maybe it means our dreams need to get bigger. Bigger dreams … and egos we check at the door. When it isn’t about us, we look at the need a little bit differently. When it isn’t about us, we look our strengths and weaknesses in the eye. When it isn’t about us, we surround ourselves with people smarter than us so we can accomplish those big dreams. When it isn’t about us, effective collaboration happens.
I’m hoping you are starting to wonder what collaboration looks like in your organization. Maybe it means talking to other leaders and finding the synergy among your nonprofits. Maybe your unique differences will prove your biggest connections. For example, when you think outside your box, you might notice how a fellow nonprofit can serve your constituents in an additional way. Not only do you better assist your community, you do it without adding anything else to your plate! (I heard you breathe that sign of relief.)
While we are on the topic, take a moment to examine all the outputs of your own nonprofit. Have you gradually agreed to tackle more and more projects because someone said there was a need (and maybe even offered you money to execute) … but now all those little additions are sidetracking you from the ultimate mission? I’d wager a bet that any undertaking that comes across your desk is probably being served by another organization. Solution? Collaboration.
There are almost certainly other nonprofits attacking the same cause. Perhaps your methods of fundraising are different, meaning you reach distinct donor bases. Could you work together to accomplish more by efficiently using all the donors’ resources?
The awesome thing about collaboration is that there isn’t one right way to do it. Collaboration spawns creativity, which nearly always influences change. Once you start, it will be hard to quit. The passion of others, not to mention the possibility for dramatic impact, will inspire you. You’ll begin finding growth ideas and solutions in places you least expect them.
I wholeheartedly want your organization to cease to exist.
I urge you to be a different nonprofit leader — not the one with the best media coverage, or the one with 1M Instagram followers, or even the one with the most dollars raised. I want you to be the one without a job because you achieved your big dreams.
When you find yourself unemployed, come find me and I’ll hire you to teach someone else how to do the same thing.