Sadly, I seem to be on a tear against my own sector. This is disturbing. But, then, so is that which I am railing against!
It would be preposterous to say that at this point in my life, I am naïve, or not well rooted in reality. I’ve always classified myself as a realist, rather than either optimist or pessimist. But now I’m beginning to wonder if my view of reality needs to change or if the nonprofit sector needs to return to its roots and remember why it came into being.
One of the first things I make sure to tell those with stars in their eyes asking me about starting a nonprofit is that no one, not even a founder, owns a nonprofit. Nonprofits are not about “me” or “I”. Nonprofits are about others; they are here to serve and help others—others have access to the arts or health care; to shelter and quality education; to clean air and social justice. So, tell me, how are we becoming such a selfish sector, concerned more about personal and organizational survival than the rules of the game: basic, common decency and serving the community?
In the space of one hour I heard two stories of two different organizations being cut out by long-time partners. And knowledge of being cut out was discovered by accident and not by the devious partner having the common courtesy to come clean. While the particulars don’t matter, the generals might. In each case, it was a bad partner applying for grants that previously had been a collaborative effort doing so without a word of warning or explanation.
In both situations, the sneaky partner took another collaborator. In both cases, the executive directors of the spurned organizations are trying to be gracious and understanding, but are, truth be told and rightfully so, struggling. The bad partners had interactions with these ex-collaborators during the course of the secret move, but never let on. The bad partners had ample opportunity to pick up the phone and give the spurned partners a heads up, if not an explanation, thereby allowing the spurned partners to make a decision of their own to go after the grant solo, or with a new partner. But none of that happened.
Yes, it is true that contract and giving dollars are a zero sum game. And, yes, it is true that the proceeds of that game have been reduced. But that doesn’t and shouldn’t change what drives the nonprofit sector: improving the quality of life in all of our communities for all in our communities. And that includes the nonprofit community.
I’ve worked with enough nonprofits over the decades to know that the vast majority of nonprofits share at least one common core value: respect. Another comes in as a close second: integrity. These may not be the exact words that show up on a nonprofit’s list of core values, but the sentiment is definitely there. One of the wonderful things about core values, though, when understood and adhered to, is that they are not merely internal guides; they set the standard for it all—inside the organization and out. Core values are not simply expectations for and of clients, but for and of staff, board members, collaborations, funders, etc. How can an organization be integrious if it stabs collaborators in the back?
I understand that these are tough times. But as I repeatedly tell boards of directors, their first and foremost loyalty as a board member is to the mission of the organization—that vehicle through which you tell everyone—from clients to funders to collaborators—what you represent. They cannot afford to be loyal to a person, as that frequently leads them to supporting an individual who is harming the ability to deliver on that mission. They cannot afford to be loyal to an organization, as that is merely the body through which the mission is delivered. Sometimes an individual needs to go; sometimes the body is no longer healthy and is best served by merging the mission with another, healthier body/organization. And the same is true for executive directors and staff. Our job isn’t to build our own empire, to safeguard our well-being, to protect our turf, to ensure our own perpetuity. “Own” and “my” and “our” (as in a singular organization our) and the like just don’t belong in the lexicon of nonprofit employees and board members. It is “theirs”; what can we do to ensure the best service for clients, their well-being, their perpetuity. Our job is to do those things that will enable us to best serve our clients and fulfill our mission promises. As simple as that!
Zero sum pies do tend to breed competition, as simple math dictates that the more someone else gets the less there is for everyone else. But that only matters when it is all about you. In the nonprofit sector, where that should not be the case, the zero sum pie needs a different interpretation: the more a good organization/collaboration gets, the better clients are served. And if together we can do a better job of serving our clients, then together we should be, regardless of whether it builds your territory, gives you a bigger piece of the pie or puts you higher up on the totem pole.
It is this very concern about turf and me and I that has caused the dearth in mergers that so many predicted we would see in the years after the recession. It is this very concern about my way and my organization that has spawned the ridiculous growth in the number of nonprofits, many of which are stepping on one another’s toes, resources and, yes, ability to do well by clients. And this simply is nowhere in the intents and purpose clause of our sector.