Nonprofits should heed the experts

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 5th, 2016 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Why ask the question if you don’t want to at least listen to the answer?  But even more importantly, why ask the question if you don’t want to seriously consider the answer?  I frequently find myself wondering about this when working with nonprofits, and in particular when working with boards.  And although not new, this is increasingly problematic.

Its prevalence, in light of the growing complexity of the sector, such as ever changing models offered up – sometimes by the nonprofits themselves, sometimes by funders – to address whatever it is our missions say, the incredible need to be flexible and responsive to the wants of our actual and potential donors, the increasing web of needs which clients present, etc. make this behavior even more mystifying.

I recently had the need to consult an attorney who is an expert in the particular field of law where I needed guidance.

I did not ask her, “Tell me what to do?”  Rather, I asked her, “What do you think?”  She shared her expertise with me, I listened intently, I shared our conversation with my family members, and together we decided what we should do based on the advice she had given.

Simultaneously, I replicated this exact same process with a surgeon.  I didn’t ask the lawyer to weigh in on the medical issue or the surgeon to weigh in on the legal issue.  I used each for their expertise and asked questions, listened to answers, weighed the information with family, and made my own decisions.  The one thing I did not do was ignore the information the very people I turned to for their expertise gave me.

And yet, time after time, I see nonprofits doing exactly that:  they call in the experts, ask what are our options and, without reflection, mulling or considering, they fight back.

They hang on to what they were doing, though they were dissatisfied enough with it that they felt compelled to call in an expert—and even pay for that expert!  And then they fight what the expert has to offer.  Odd phenomenon.  We want to be better, higher performing organizations, don’t we?

The philanthropic community’s love/hate relationship with funding capacity building is a problematic one at best, if for no other reason than it gives nonprofits the excuse not to pick the experts’ brains.  But more problematic is that it indirectly, if not directly, supports the idea that everyone involved in nonprofits – from staff to board members to other volunteers – know it all, have the time, and interest, to keep abreast of all of the latest trends and research that are buzzing around their mission discipline, management, governance, volunteer management, nonprofit law, etc., while simultaneously doing the best job they can to play out the mission.  It reinforces the notion that yes, you are an island, and you can do it all on your own – a notion we know is far from truth, or even fair.

Because so many nonprofits run as the meanest and leanest of machines, and are thoroughly loathe to spend money on anything that cannot be seen to impact directly and immediately on their fulfillment of mission now, nonprofits don’t have the funds – and don’t want to find the funds within their organizations – to buy the kind of guidance and expertise they need.

They cannot weigh the value of attending to immediate needs versus investing in the organization’s future ability to address those needs in a more effective, efficient, cost effective, manner.  They cannot see that today’s cash flow problem is a symptom of deeper income development need or a faulty business model that experts could advise on how to address, instead wasting time and energy putting yet another band aid on the cash flow issue.  They cannot see that the failure to get a quorum is not a function of having too few board members, but rather a function of not having the right board members and the right meeting content.  When organizations don’t have the dollars in their budgets to stop just focusing on the fundamentals of delivering on the mission today they will continue to struggle to deliver on those mission promises into the future.

But when you do get that rarity today of capacity building dollars, or you do decide to find the money internally to spend on improving your internal capacity, do not squander it.  Listen, learn, debate, then decide what to do next.  But don’t invite the experts in only to slam the door in their faces.


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.