Brain Drain

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 26th, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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So, the IRS has added 155 new employees to its Exempt Organizations unit, bringing the total to 921; 100 of these new employees have been assigned to the division that does audits of nonprofits.  Yipee!  Apparently, brain drain has been happening within the Exempt Organizations unit, as many with long service in the unit are retiring.  So, whether this is an overall increase in bodies or not, it is clearly a loss of knowledge, experience and an expertise that comes only with years and years of doing something.

What is interesting in this set of facts is that this announcement was made at the 46th annual Washington Nonprofit Legal and Tax Conference, which is “dedicated to educating those in the nonprofit world responsible for all legal and accounting aspects as they pertain to exempt organizations.”  As the IRS speaker at the conference noted, legal and accounting professionals had complained to the IRS Exempt Organizations unit about the loss of employees with “decades of knowledge,” and she was pleased to announce that the IRS had replaced “some of the knowledge that we’ve lost.”

Phew!  I feel so much better.  I wonder if the IRS had added a series of questions to the new (in 2009) Form 990 about an organization’s succession plans for ensuring adequate expertise at all skill levels within an organization whether such a plan as hiring to replace “some of the knowledge” would have passed muster?  But, really now, who is to say that decades of knowledge is really necessary to answer those who counsel nonprofits on how to complete one of the most public documents used to judge the “goodness” of a nonprofit?

As the director of a management support organization that works very hard to establish high standards of performance and relies only on best practices models when teaching others and working with clients, and rejects, easily, 90% of the people who seek to be part of our pool of instructors and consultants, I am regularly appalled at how little attention and care others pay to the importance of standards, reliance on true expertise and the value of modeling those standards to which they are holding others.

It is true that I might have shrugged off the above statements from the IRS representative with an idle, “What did I expect?”  And, truth be told, I did, initially.  But later the same day, I reread her statements after hearing of one of the truly amazing feats of reincarnation.  This is the phoenix that has risen to teach others how to be a proper nonprofit out of the ashes of a failed—no, disgraced—nonprofit.  How is this possible, you ask?  In the absurdity of whose mind did this idea develop?  That an organization that violated almost every tenet of best practices of nonprofit management, a hydra which had lost control of its heads, should now decide that it will come back as an organization that helps and teaches others to run a strong nonprofit, is a tale that belongs on the stage of the theatre of the absurd and not on the stage of real life.

Nonprofits deserve so much better, and yet, more often than not, it is the nonprofits themselves that consciously make the ridiculous choices to give themselves less than what they deserve.  The subsidiary that almost tanked because of the (lack of) leadership of the parent, now chooses to take advice from that very morphed parent.  A nonprofit turns down the guidance of a skilled strategic planner preferring to do strategic planning with a human resources professional.  An organization that rejects a solidly vetted consultant on the complaint of single board member it never bothered to vet, for if it had they would have discovered the man never worked where he claims to be currently employed.  These are only three of the most recent examples in my twilight zone!

It is one thing if others try to foist their absurdity on us.  It is another if we create our own or accept that of others.  Not only do nonprofits deserve better; we should know better.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.