We truly are our own worst enemies, a key purveyor of the negative images of nonprofits that the larger public whole-heartedly believes and takes as gospel. If we want to dispel those myths—and we absolutely should—we must start on the inside.
What sparked this? Don’t ask me why, but The Brady Bunch theme song is tromping on my brain: here’s the story of a nonprofit struggling to improve itself; here’s the story of a for-profit consultant with an Ivy League degree offering virtually free consulting. ‘Til the one day when the consultant makes a demand on the nonprofit that is simply absurd—and the nonprofit agrees to it. (The music ended a while ago). The consultant told the executive director that the organization could only work on one consulting project at a time because he didn’t want the executive director to be “distracted”; that was the rule and it was his way or the highway. And the executive caved and said, “Okay.”
Seriously? A capable executive director being distracted by a consulting project to the point that s/he couldn’t do anything else? I do not know an executive director who does not multi-task and multi-focus every single day. I do not know a single executive director worth keeping who doesn’t have multiple balls in the air at any given time. I do not know a nonprofit that is staying vibrant and resilient that does not have manifold possibilities being bandied about at any given time. So, what gives?
But worst of all is the question screaming in my head: would anyone ever go to a for-profit company with that same message about distractions? Would anyone ever be so condescending and disrespectful as to suggest to a for-profit company that it does not have the knowledge, skill, capacity—you name it—to do two things at once?
It is the nature of the beast that an evolving, thinking organization works multiple options at the same time. Sometimes the projects are complimentary; sometimes not. Too often, though, there isn’t the luxury—or the desire—to take things seriatim; rather there is an urgency—or, again, simply a desire— to move things forward in unison, in recognition of the benefit gained by the symbiosis of the multiple processes on the integrated organization.
Truthfully, I am not sure what bothers me more: the arrogance of the consultant (a phenomenon we see far too often from those who come into the nonprofit sector from the for-profit sector brandishing their for-profit knowledge as better than, more “right” than, you name it more than the nonprofit sector) or the “obedience” of the executive director who was either blinded by the free sign or the Ivy League sign or simply said, “Yes, Daddy!” As a feminist, double Ivy League graduate and director of an organization that finds the best, most capable consultants who understand and respect nonprofits from the inside and charges nonprofits a very accessible fee, I don’t know which of those explanations offends me more!
I do, however, know whom I blame more for the end result: the nonprofit executive director. Consultants can and do tell clients what they think is best for the organization without consulting with the organization for what it has the capacity to do, what it needs to do and what it wants to do. And any executive director (or board or staff member) who simply goes along with a consultant’s demands is selling him/herself and the organization far too short, and, quite honestly, doesn’t belong in that seat of leadership.
But what I really blame this executive director for is helping to affirm the myth that nonprofit leaders are second tier, simple, inferior (to for-profit employees), less able and less capable than those who earn the big bucks in the for-profit world.