In Search of the 3 Musketeers

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on March 6th, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

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This semester I’m teaching two graduate classes: a class in nonprofit management in La Salle’s MBA program and one nonprofit management in our Masters in Nonprofit Leadership program. While I’ve taught each of these classes before, I’ve never taught them simultaneously. In both classes, though I have a bit of a different approach, I have the same end goal: like Jim Collins, I want these future leaders not to think about what is a great nonprofit organization as opposed to a great for-profit organization, but rather what good practices can we take from each to just make great organizations, regardless of their “product” or end goal. (Interestingly, 10 years after I first started this class in the MBA program, this semester students aren’t fighting the idea.) In both sectors, there is much talk about attracting the best and the brightest in our human capital, all the while ignoring what are the “best and the brightest” ways of doing things.

While encouraging students to look with a truly open mind at what the other has to offer, as opposed to seeing, and then in a knee jerk manner dismissing–one as the devil, the other as the losers (and these are not, sadly, exaggerated descriptors)–I spend time thinking about the elements that truly differentiate the two and, thus, couldn’t crossover and back. As so often happens, a recent conversation that was going down a completely unrelated path suddenly had me musing about a possible key differentiator. My lunch partner was saying he wanted to find an organization where his colleagues would care about the organization as a whole as much as, and, preferably, more than, themselves, their own job, own work area, etc.

Well, of course, that is it! Nonprofit employees have a higher loyalty to the whole—read mission—than to themselves (whereas for-profit employees have a greater interest—can’t even say loyalty–to their own bottom line, their own success and, to the extent that their department’s success betters their own, well maybe then to the department, too). Or is that it? Is it the ideal but not the reality? Or was it the reality once upon a time, but now it is not the reality? Do the Three Musketeers live on anywhere?

The more I thought about this notion the less I could argue its truth. And that realization was hugely depressing. What about founders, I asked myself? Surely, along with all of the complicating issues that they bring with them, they are about the whole? What was I thinking? (Spacing for emphasis.) If founders were about the whole, they would be hungering for succession planning; they would be understanding when the board said, “Sorry, you are no longer the right leader for this organization;” they would make it about more than themselves. And too rarely do we see that. In fact, over the decades, I have heard far too many founders say that they didn’t care if the organization died when they no longer were interested; some even wanted that. That, however, is the epitome of caring about self rather than, or even along with, the whole.

Whenever I talk to or work with organizations on succession planning, I repeatedly tell them that they are not planning for replacing one person, but they are planning for a totally new way. I explain that very likely we are done with the 20 plus year executive director and are looking at a five to seven year ED. We are done with the ED who will be a slave to the organization and are, instead, looking at an ED who wants a COO/Assistant Director and development staff, and maybe even more, so s/he doesn’t have to work so hard. (Which is not a bad thing by any stretch, and does not speak to loyalty to the whole or not.) And have instead people who will stay for as long as s/he is interested because…because we have lost loyalty to the organization (its success, its mission, its clients) and are part of a new and burgeoning workforce that doesn’t hold loyalty to others as a value, core or otherwise.

Leaders are either not building or not sustaining organizational cultures that value the greater good of the whole over or on par with the betterment of the individual. We don’t do the things that would build the loyalty—positive work conditions, professional development, competitive wages, etc., and we don’t reward loyalty when it exists. We, the theoretical altruistic sector, don’t practice altruism in our own organizations. We don’t seem to be using the resources that are available to us to build work environments that envelop and support those who truly work for the higher purpose of the mission rather than those who work simply to get the job done.

Have we as a sector lost the ability and/or desire to work for something beyond a paycheck, where the mission of an organization is more important than the size of our office or the work ethic of a colleague? Have we lost faith in the importance of doing whatever it takes to deliver on mission promises and the feel good that comes with it in favor of stepping back, hands up, palms out, saying, “not my job?” Has the nonprofit sector lost its soul?

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.