The Promise of Delayed Gratification

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 17th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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If you’ve never watched a video of someone doing Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment, now would be a great time.  If nothing else, watching children with marshmallows would be a welcome break from the all-consuming pandemic coverage.

On the serious side, though, Mischel’s experiment taught us about the relationship between delaying gratification – doing some hard work now to reap a reward down the road.  

In 2008, many nonprofits chased any dollars they could, often diverting them far from their mission, for the immediate gratification of staying afloat.  Down the road, many had to struggle to find the way back to what they were supposed to have been doing all along.  A quick win but a hollow victory.  Eating that one marshmallow now rather than holding out in order to have two later on.  

While it would be so easy to focus on the marshmallow in front of us, there is greater value in looking to the future.  Pay attention to what you are learning today so that you can apply it in the future and, therefore, do better in the future.  

Let’s apply this lesson.  A recent conversation about calling donors to check in with them – not asking them for money, but rather reaching out as human to human and not nonprofit to donor, to see how they are doing, if they needed anything – made one organization realize how limited its donor base is, practically devoid of phone numbers and email addresses.  That’s a lesson that should not get lost going forward.

Another lesson I don’t want folks to forget comes from some rare good news.  Like you, I’m sure, most of my conversations these days are depressing, consumed by both our personal and professional struggles. 

But I have actually found something about which to smile. Executive directors and board presidents alike are telling me that their boards – collectively as well as individual board members – are leaning in. Granted, that is not the case for all, but without a doubt, in numbers far greater than I heard after 9/11 and the 2008 recession, boards are stepping up in this crisis.  And while I celebrate this behavior, I want to focus on the important thing here:  why? 

I see four possible explanations, operating alone or in tandem.  One) it may be the crisis that is pulling everyone in. No one alive today has ever faced a global pandemic, massive sheltering in place and the shuttering of extensive portions of our society and economy.  Thus, it is just possible that the singularity and magnitude of the current crisis has drawn people to the board table.  Two) it may be that sheltering in place and working remotely has given people more time.  Three) it may be the convenience of attending remotely, turning what is normally a 2.5-3 hour experience for a 1.5 hour board meeting into a 1.5 hour experience.  Four), it may be that the crisis has provided many boards with a sense of purpose and recognition of value that had previously been missing in their job as board members.  

What is exactly at play here, is yet to be determined, but without a doubt this new behavior is the result of a combination of some of these four possibilities.  But instead of wondering and guessing, ask your board members.  Knowing why this oft-sought behavior is occurring now will provide information necessary to design experiences that will support the same behavior continuing post crisis.  In other words, don’t enjoy just one marshmallow; invest a little something now so that you can have more marshmallows down the road.

Another lesson that I would like folks to learn during this crisis is one that, sadly, hasn’t been learned from previous crises.  This lesson is simple:  diversified income strategies are essential for viability.  Being overly dependent on any one stream of income is unhealthy for any organization, regardless of what that stream is.  

As nonprofits, we have two categories of income:  raised and earned.  Within each of these categories are various streams, such as foundations and individuals, to fees for services and social enterprises.  Feeding those streams are tributaries – multiple foundations, individual donors, sources of earned income.  To be sustainable, we want as much diversification as possible everywhere.  

Being overly dependent upon earned income is no less harmful than being overly dependent upon grant dollars. While there are many examples from our past of how such an irrational business model can be an organization’s death knoll, many of them were organizations too heavily reliant on grant dollars.  

This, led many to believe that it was just an over-dependence on foundation dollars that was the risk.  Wrong.   Just this week, 164 Jewish Community Centers in North America were forced to lay off staff and close their doors because they were overly reliant on earned dollars.  We are fortunate to have five potential funding streams and we need to be fishing in all of them.  Bringing in revenue has never been easy.   But spreading our work around will help ensure there are lots of marshmallows in our future.

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.