Failed Promises

Posted by Joan Ulmer on March 28th, 2019 in Thoughts & Commentary

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One of my big laments about our sector is that we are not altruistic.  We think about our own nonprofit, but not about the sector as a whole.  There is a place and a need for both.  Ironically, a lesson that too few organization leaders have come to understand is that it is impossible to be a leader of a successful organization if the leader isn’t always thinking about the organization in the context of that larger sector, as well as the larger society. 

Broken promise fortune cookie

In his TedTalk, “Listen, Learn, the Lead,” former General Stanley McChyrstal says that a person can fail without being a failure.  I’m beginning to think that the nonprofit sector has not only failed, but it just be a failure. 

While we have been looking inward, we have failed to do some very basic things. 

First, we have failed to control the growth of our sector, and this harms us all.  With a growth rate larger than either government or for-profits, our numbers are spiraling out of control in general, and certainly in relation to the availability of funds to support that growth.  Sadly, because too many nonprofits don’t recognize that there are market forces influencing their existence, nonprofits aren’t birthed the way for-profits are:  there is no market survey done, no assessment of supply and demand, no competitive scan.  Instead, there is simply passion and a person’s belief that s/he has a brilliant idea and can do that idea better than anyone else.  And, now, poof, another nonprofit is born. 

Add to this great resistance to sensible, well-thought out mergers (as opposed to the mergers that result from, “Oh, our Executive Director is going to retire so we better merge,” or “Oh, we don’t have enough money so we better merge”) that could deliver a stronger product to clients from a more secure organization.  As a result, we have weakened the sector, allowing too many nonprofits to compete for scarce resources, too many to “exist” on the margins, believing they are “living” when they are merely surviving hand to mouth and setting poor examples of how nonprofits should operate, too many to operate without knowing whether what they are doing is making a positive difference, all while folks new to the sector, as employees, volunteers or donors, come in and learn these bad habits. 

We allow folks to join the boards of nonprofits, patting themselves on the back for being kind and generous, being a good person and giving back, all the while failing to know what this job of nonprofit board member is all about and, as a result, allowing nonprofits to struggle, at best, and get into trouble, at worst. 

Which leads to error number two:  we have failed to hold ourselves accountable, blithely turning over those reins to “outside” parties—like foundations and watchdog groups.  Unfortunately, it was foundations who first launched the pressure to know, for real, based on actual data, whether programs were truly meeting the goals that they promised.  We didn’t demand it of ourselves; we waited for an outside force to say, “Prove it.”  What were we thinking?  By abdicating our own stewardship, we allowed others to come in and take control.  And when we didn’t like how they did it, we said, “You guys have got it wrong,” but it was too late; the die had been cast.  So, we find ourselves a handful of years later still trying to get the public to understand that those who set themselves up as the watchdogs, the ones who would tell others who amongst us were good or bad, using their standards of judgment, not ours, got it wrong.  Don’t judge us by the standards they set, judge us by the standards we set.  Except we didn’t set them, and now we are trying to back pedal to what seems like no avail.  We tried standing up for ourselves perhaps a little too late.

Error number three:  too many have failed to remember that it is about the mission and the clients, not about the leader, the organization, turf, etc.  Evidence of this is replete with the almost daily reminders from around the country of trusted nonprofit leaders embezzling funds.  We see it in the stories of founders and long-serving executive directors who won’t let go, despite the fact that the organization needs different leadership if it is to transition to its next lifecycle.  We see it in boards that let underperforming executive directors and fellow board members stay in their positions long after they have been performing well, and too often to the point that their performance is actually harming the organization.  We see it, as noted previously, in board members who join a board to boost their resumes and their feel good quota, rather than to do the job that is expected.  We see it in executive directors who retaliate in various ways—from badmouthing to law suits to starting competitor organizations—when asked to step down.  And we see it in organizations that refuse to close or merge because the name/independence/whatever is more important than providing services to clients from a position of strength, rather than a position of decay.

It is error number four that is the biggie:  we have failed to solve the problems we were created to address.  In 2017, one in eight Americans, including one out of every five children, was living in poverty.  While these numbers are down from the years of the Great Recession, they are up from 2000. 

In 2018, 17 people out of every 10,000 were homeless on any given night in the United States.  The National Center for Education Statistics reports a high school graduation rate of 84%, a number suggesting high school graduates are on the rise; but that number ranges from 68%-94% depending upon a student’s race.  Crime rates and incarceration rates are dropping, but far from disappearing.  Hate crimes are on the rise, which some would describe at an alarming rate.  Now we track the numbers for female victims of physical violence at the hands of an “intimate partner” (1 in 3) and male victims (1 in 4).  There is one area, though, where the nonprofit sector has played a contributing role solving problems:  supporting medical research that has brought us vaccines to prevent, protocols to treat and, in some cases, actual eradication.  Sadly, though, these are the exceptions.  As a rule, the very problems too many nonprofits were created to address have yet to be solved.   We have failed to do what we promised.

If we are not providing the solution, are we not part of the problem?  Is our promotion of false hope and promises contributing to the problem?  By continuing to claim to have a solution that clearly isn’t working, have we not failed?  I tell every nonprofit board that on some periodic basis (during strategic planning is a great time), it must ask itself this question:  is our mission still needed?  But we must actually take the questioning and thinking beyond that and ask:  have we failed?  Is it time for us to close and free up the space for someone else to try?

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.

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