Savoring the Nonprofit Culture

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 14th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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During my decades of teaching undergraduates, I would, every so often as was needed, leave my discipline of criminology and teach a sister class on social problems.

A question that I would ask in the first week of the semester was, “Do you have to have experienced something in order to truly understand it?  Or can you understand and appreciate something through the tales of those who have?”  Answers always came down on both sides.  But it didn’t matter, because by the end of the semester in this particular laboratory classroom, students had experienced all the social problems we explored that semester.  They were then each, unquestionably, equipped to respond to these social problems from the context of personal, albeit brief, experience and knowledge.

The real life of nonprofits, however, does not afford us the luxury of time or other resources to immerse the uninitiated in our world, unless, of course, they are going to become part of our world.  But when it comes to those who dip in and dip out to help us, as needed – consultants, lawyers, accountants, etc.- we are best served by those who either a) have immersed themselves in our world or b) are willing to listen – and I mean really listen – to us describe our needs.  We do not need someone who believes that one size fits all, and that size is the for-profit model.  This is not a “dis” on the for-profit model; it is simply a statement that reflects the true reality of differences in cultural needs.

For example, back in the 2007, knowing that the changes were coming to the Form 990, we started telling all of our clients that if they weren’t working with an accountant/accounting group that didn’t specialize in nonprofits, they should switch immediately.

And then the multiple days of trainings for accountants started, and the “tome” of directions (about four inches thick) came out.  If this wasn’t the work that you did day-in and day-out, no accountant, no matter how skilled, could afford to learn the ins and outs of that tome.  Too many nonprofits that didn’t switch, who continued with their pro-bono accountant who was doing their work as a favor to a board member or the executive director or to meet a company requirement, found out later the mistakes that had been made.  Again, no slight to accountants, they just failed to take the time to know our culture.

The nonprofit culture is significantly different from the for-profit one.  We cannot pluck something from one culture, as if it were a chess piece, and plop it down in the other and have things go smoothly.  For example, a recent client  was given two pro-bono consultants from its board president’s for-profit company to help take the nonprofit through strategic planning.  Before starting that work, the client called us in to help them understand what strategic planning in the nonprofit sector should look like so that they could make sure that the for-profit consultants got all of the pieces right.  There were pieces of the process that these consultants didn’t want to do because they aren’t part of their process.  So, the client calls us back in to do just these pieces.   The work progresses, and the same thing happens:  for-profit consultants say no and we are called back in.  This happened three times, in total.   Thus, In order to get both the process (which, for nonprofits, is perhaps more important than the product) and the product that was needed, the client ended up calling us in a total of four times and spending more money – and other resources – than they would have had they said no to the pro-bono one size fits all consultants and just worked with us.

This is not an unusual phenomenon with consultants.  Even within the nonprofit sector, there can be no one-size fits all approach.  While nonprofits love to tell us how unique they are, the truth is that the only thing that is possibly unique is the subculture that each creates within its own organization.  A truly good consultant knows that and will seek to understand that culture of a specific organization before submitting a proposal.  It is one of the chief reasons why off-the-shelf proposals from consultants who don’t take the time to find out about the particular ins and outs of a potential client don’t lead to successful work.

While there are so many examples here to which I could point, my current peeve is with lawyers who don’t know and understand the nonprofit sector.  One of the wonderful things that has happened in the last  10 to 15 years is the growth in individual lawyers and boutique practices that solely work with nonprofits.  If you aren’t currently working with one of them, it just may be time to switch.

Yes, nonprofits absolutely need legal protection, no question about it.  But, as part of our culture, we are also sensitive to the needs of the other party with whom we are entering an agreement.  And we need our protections written in lay language and reflective of our culture.  I can always tell what bylaws have been written by lawyers as opposed to simply approved by an attorney:  in the former there will be sections that I need to reread multiple times to be sure I’ve got the message straight; in the latter, that doesn’t happen—even and including the indemnification section.  Unlike the for-profit world, we are not a litigious culture – and I think that is a good thing.

Our first impulse is not to sue but to work things out; our first impulse isn’t to skewer another but to disentangle ourselves and move on; our first impulse isn’t to make a buck but to figure out what needs to be done so we can focus on serving our clients.

Whether this mind-set is a function and reflection of the very purpose of nonprofits – improving lives for all – or the lack of resources to sue, doesn’t really matter, a;though I prefer to think of it as the former.  What matters is that this be understood by the attorneys with whom we work.  The vast majority (I’d guess around 90%, if not higher) of nonprofits don’t have in-house counsel and access to retained lawyers costs money and time, so legal documents are best written in English, not “lawyerese” that protects only the on-going employment of attorneys and not the legal interests of nonprofits.  As with any consultant, the good ones take the time to know your particular needs and wants and the products reflect that; with the poor ones you get one size fits all, and that size rarely, if ever, fits us.

There is a reason professionals specialize:  they want to be the best with a smaller piece of the pie rather than be just okay with the whole pie.  It is time nonprofits started valuing themselves enough to demand the best rather than settling for mediocre.  Fortunately, the labor force is already there to meet that demand, whether you are talking consultants, accountants, lawyers, marketers, you name it.

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.