Having it All?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 2nd, 2012 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Debora Spar
, the President of Barnard, recently wrote in Newsweek,  “…we seem stuck today in a purgatory of perfection—each of us trying so hard to be everything that inevitably, inherently, we fail.”  She was writing about the state of women in the 21st century and making reference to the media challenge to women started decades ago of “having it all” and being “super woman.”

I reread that phrase several times, not thinking about being a woman and having it all—I rejected that media hype immediately for what it was.  No, I reread it several times because it rang so true for nonprofits today—but they have no one to blame but themselves for putting themselves into that purgatory.  No one dropped the glove for them; no one except themselves set up unrealistic –and unhealthy—expectations.

Take a look around; you see this phenomenon in too many places.  And the recession seems only to have made it worse.

Truth be told, it operates a little differently in the nonprofit sector.  Too many nonprofits do seem to want to be all things to all people, and it happens for two different reasons:  1)  they don’t know what they really are and/or should be or 2) they think they can and should be.

Let’s start with the first one—don’t know what they really are or should be—which reads like this:  a nonprofit with a lack of clarity and/or agreement as to its mission; an inability to be successful focusing on mission; chasing dollars rather than chasing mission; and other variations on this theme.

The underlying error that apparently too few nonprofits who pursue the “let’s do it all option” fail to see is that trying to do more when you aren’t able to do well the limited work that you should be doing is totally illogical.  What too many nonprofits fail to understand when it comes to expansion is that it is best to build from strength, not chaos; better to build from success, than merely getting by, at best, or flailing or failing, at worst.  If you haven’t been able to provide a good, quality product/service to your clients in area A, and one that donors see value in supporting, the solution isn’t to try to deliver a new product/service or to expand your service area or to try to do more of any kind.  And, yet, we see that all of the time.  And, as Spar notes, the organizations inevitably fail.

Why is it that nonprofits don’t stay focused on what they are supposed to be?  Why is it that too many organizations try to be more than they can be?  In criminology, there is the Law of Saturation which says, if I may bastardize the explanation and make it very basic, that, in essence, each society has as much crime as it and its systems can tolerate and handle.  Would that nonprofits spent time assessing their true saturation point, and did not try to be more than they had the capacity to be, to do more when they really should be working to doing better, to be content to be the best at what they should be doing, even if what they should be doing is focused and narrow.  If only nonprofits truly valued quality rather than quantity, we’d have a stronger nonprofit sector doing a better job of responding to the needs of our people and our communities.  Instead, too many nonprofits prefer purgatory – but not of perfection – and failure.

Which brings us to the second group of nonprofits who try to do it all:  those who think they should be doing it all.  The truth of the matter is that very few organizations—even very smart and very large ones–can successfully do it all.

Think of hospitals, for example, which repeatedly promote themselves as the best in a region in specialty X.  What does that mean about the quality of their practice in specialty Y?  Clearly, it isn’t as good.  Oops! Can’t have it all.

Or the social service agency that works with addicts and those with disabilities and does jobs training and promotes healthy living, and, and, and.  But if you survey the folks in the know, they will tell you that it really is good at programs A and B, and not so good with C.  Passable job with specialty Y and program C, but not great.  Again, why did we stop valuing quality over quantity?  Why do we think having it all, even if all isn’t done to equally high standards, is better than having some done really, really well?

Like women, there are some nonprofits that do seem to be able to “have it all” and “do it all”  and “do it perfectly.”  But seem is the operative word here.  And, not surprisingly, there are parallels:  they have money and can buy what they need!  Every working mother who never had a full-time nanny, who didn’t have a live-in or daily housekeeper, who didn’t have the luxury of being the boss and designing her own maternity leave, laughed at the brashness of Yahoo CEO Marissa Ann Mayer’s statement on how she was going to handle her maternity leave and shuddered at her “understanding” of what it means to be a mom.  Seventeen million dollars can buy a lot; but it can’t buy being a good mom.  Something gives, whether you like it or not.  And so it is with the mega nonprofits—the universities, hospitals, uber social service agencies—that want to have it all.  In trying to do it all, something(s) gives.  Just ask their customers and employees.

We shall not worship false goals.  The idea that anyone or any organization can “do it all” and do it all “to perfection” is one false hope.  As nonprofits, we owe our stakeholders smarter behavior than that.

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.