Controlling Our Own Narrative

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 30th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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We are entering the second month of the last quarter of the year, which means so much to the financial well-being of too many nonprofits. Thus, it is the time when powerful storytelling becomes our great ally. So why am I thinking about how we’re not telling our own stories. 

Man holding microphone

Where is our voice? Have we lost it, or perhaps, never even had it? Why have we allowed others to tell our story and control our narrative?

As I wrapped up another Masters class in Nonprofit Management, a course that has as one of  its themes juxtaposing nonprofits and for-profits, I realized that I was perhaps more strident than usual in pointing out how much the sector has abdicated our responsibility to ourselves and allowed others to be the definer of how we run our businesses, how we achieve our goals, how we should be judged.  

I was perhaps a bit louder than usual in pointing out that despite being the third largest economy in the US, we have allowed the for-profit standard to reign supreme in the eyes of most Americans. Not to worry; I am not advocating for the  overthrow of capitalism, but I am arguing for the softening of capitalism’s pursuit of excess and the ability to use multiple measures of excellence, except that of capitalism. One of the things that, historically, our country has been proud of is our heterogeneity. Yet, despite that, we  have relied forever on one definition of success:  money. Followed as a close second:  power.

Perhaps the most harmful result of our abdication has been allowing those outside the organization, and those who sit on the opposite side of our table, to measure our success.  Watchdog groups are, by their very name, outsiders.  I wrote about this in last week’s blog post.

As we know, and as I have frequently railed against them, they have been the leaders of measuring a nonprofit’s “goodness” by its overhead ratio. Funders bought into that metric, and then compounded the problem by eliminating general operating grants, providing little or nothing for operating costs in program grants.  

The nonprofits that provide the work donors fund and that are the object of criticism for not spending our money “correctly,” have been complicit by not pushing back on the metrics, not pushing back on the language that allowed an electric bill, the bookkeeper, evaluation costs, clean spaces, etc., to be viewed as overhead when they are costs that are every bit as essential to the program as is the staff delivering the program and its necessary supplies.

When you allow the metrics of for-profit companies to be the metric for all, it is no wonder that those who are naïve about how our sector operates (and any watchdog organization should never be naïve to the machinations of those it is watching over) would opt for the knee-jerk measurement of dollars and cents.  

We don’t have the luxury and ease of relying simply on that financial bottom line to determine whether we are successful. No, we have the triple bottom line of mission, money and impact.  

We must demonstrate that we are fulfilling our mission promises, while still bringing in enough money to cover all of our costs, plus making some profit (otherwise we will be an organization leading to our own demise) with programs that have evidence proving they are delivering on their promised impact.  But instead of grabbing the microphone decades ago and explaining this, we stayed silent, hoping not to lose donations, all the while allowing others to tell their version of our story. 

We can also add the general media to the list of those to whom we ceded our story. Have you ever looked at how the media covers nonprofits, compared that to how the media covers for-profits?  

Every semester, I ask my students to do just that:  choose any media outlet and watch it over the duration of the class to analyze how nonprofits show up in the media versus how for-profits appear.

Students always find that nonprofits are often the filler stories on a soft news day.  They are the feel-good stories that paint nonprofits as heroes and saviors who charge in during disasters, who save those on the margins, etc.  

They do not show up in the business section, nor are they portrayed as hard hitting businesses (which they must be if to thrive), despite the fact that as businesses they have that harder triple bottom line to prove. When they show up on the front page only when there is a scandal.  

Unless the journalists writing the stories cover nonprofits with some degree of regularity and, therefore, know something about nonprofits and know the experts to contact, too many of the articles help to perpetuate some of the worst myths out there. These often judge a nonprofit by its overhead, or are about a founder who “owns their” nonprofit, or board members who are just there to give money, or governments that are the primary source of dollars funding nonprofits, and so on.

Thus, we remain silent, turning our narrative over to others for fear risking an immediate grant in hopes of a deeper understanding in the future. We have continually demonstrated our inability to grasp the importance of ROI, leading to its willingness to be, repeatedly, penny-wise and pound foolish, spawning decades of nonprofits living on the edge, carrying debt, constantly scrambling, and even closing.  

This situation, however, is our own doing, and it must stop.  We can no longer blame others for this situation, and must, instead, take ownership, tell our own story, make our own rules. Without apology. As we work for social justice, let’s work for a little of our own. This is our story, and we must share it in order to do justice to our work and the people we serve.

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.