Handwriting on the Wall

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 31st, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary


It is time that nonprofits lost their sense of entitlement.  Listen up:  you aren’t owed anything just because you are a nonprofit.

Sense of entitlement you are asking? How’s that work?  Let me count the ways!

  • Frequently, I will hear expressions of anger when a nonprofit doesn’t get the funding it had sought.  The anger isn’t at the organization, perhaps for writing a poor proposal or not following funding guidelines or having that prerequisite meeting with the program officer.  Rather, the anger is towards the funder with an undertone of “how dare they?”

I think of all the organizations that either have gone under or struggled mightily because they never diversified their funding base, despite repeated pleas to do so.  I think of all of the organizations shocked because a long-time funder finally says, “No, not again this year.”  The idea of counting on a funder in perpetuity—or even year after year–is beyond my ken.  Yet, when that key funder changed its way of doing business, shifts its priorities, decides it’s not getting the bang for the buck that it wants, the anger directed at that funder is frequently immense.  Little, however, is spewed in the direction of the nonprofit for failing to let go of its sense of “this is our due.”

No funder owes us funding simply because it has funded us in the past—regardless of how long a past it is.  We deserve funding because we are a sound organization with a solid business model doing really good, documented work to serve our clients.

  • An announcement goes out for a free event.  The event looks interesting and helpful for your organization.  One or more staff sign up to attend.  Time passes and the event takes on less of a priority, other things come up, staff leaves the organization–the explanations are endless.  But the reason why doesn’t matter.  Does anyone bother to cancel that registration?  Rarely.

Though that event may have been free to attend, that event was not free to present; somewhere, someone(s) is paying for that event.  And because of arrogance—entitlement—no one bothers to cancel and let another person attend.  It isn’t all about you!

Does this sound personal?  You bet.  Every time The Nonprofit Center offers a free event, we always over enroll by 20% because we know that many people won’t show and won’t bother to cancel.  Recently, we did a free, half-day event on relationship fundraising that “sold out” in 24 hours:  200 people registered, and the waiting list was closing in on triple digits (where it did, eventually, reside by the time the event came along).  We repeatedly sent emails out reminding people of the popularity of the event and pleading with them to let us know if they couldn’t attend so that others could attend in their stead.  Many did let us know; 17%, however, just didn’t bother to show.  People for whom we, a nonprofit, paid a per-head cost.

There is an expectation that I see and hear all too frequently:  we are a nonprofit and therefore everyone should be willing to help us and help us for free.  Sorry; it doesn’t work that way.  There are approximately 1.4 million nonprofits in this country alone.  How is helping all of them for free going to work?  Even if you don’t have a sound business model, respect the fact that others do.  And I can guarantee you that no business ever stayed in business by giving everything away for free.

We at The Nonprofit Center give an awful lot away for free:  staff is constantly giving away free consulting, suggestions of where to look for jobs and/or information on specific jobs, connecting nonprofits with a variety of resources, helping for-profits and nonprofits alike get the word out about their work and activities.  And yes, giving a certain amount of free “stuff” is part of our modus operandi.  But so is reaching that point where free must stop and fee for services must kick in.  If not, the next time a nonprofit picks up the phone to call us or sends us an email query, there will be no one here to respond.

As a nonprofit, I would never presume to ask someone for something for free.  I respect the hard work that others do.  And no matter how nice I might be and no matter how much someone might “like” me, I know that others are running a business on which they depend for paying bills, supporting family, paying other employees, etc.  Am I more important than all of that that I should presume upon their time and business model?  And do so simply because I am a nonprofit? Hardly!  If someone wants to give us something useful for free, that is another story.  And that I won’t turn down!

Our staff has repeatedly encountered rather irate people who don’t understand why we won’t help them for free.  What is wrong with us, they ask, directly or indirectly?  Why won’t we help them?  Truth is, by this point, we’ve more often than not already given them hundreds of dollars of free consulting.  Funders have told me of applicants yelling at them if they don’t like the answers they are getting from the funder, are turned down for money, and more.  What is wrong with these pictures?

The truly disturbing part of this sense of entitlement is that more often than not it leads to nonprofits trying to take advantage of other nonprofits, imposing on other nonprofits or those whose career it is to help nonprofits.    These organizations and individuals are also working to survive but doing so with a sound business model that will drive long-term viability.  Constantly giving your work away for free has never constituted a formula for that viability.

As a capacity-building organization, The Nonprofit Center, and all of our sister organizations, wants to help all nonprofits identify and implement a business model that will sustain an organization long-term.  But if all you can afford is nothing to reach that goal, perhaps the handwriting is on the wall.


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.