Think you’re Unique?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 26th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

0 comment

I have a great respect for and appreciation of social workers.  My two sisters and some of my best friends have been social workers.   But as a sociologist, and ultimately a criminologist, social worker reliance on the case study method as a valid research method has always driven me crazy.

What we know from studying one is just that:  we know that one. To assume that we can learn anything about which we can generalize, can extrapolate from that one and presume we now know anything about the group from which that one comes is just absurd.  That anyone—social worker or anyone else—would be so bold as to pontificate from his/her experience of that one boggles the mind.  At least it boggles the mind of anyone who believes in the importance of having a statistically valid sample if you want to even begin to think that you have observed a large enough group from which extrapolation and assumption is, in layperson terms, safe!

Evidently, I have reached my tipping point where I am more than willing to say publicly what I have cried internally for so, so many decades:    way too many board members and executive directors learned that same research method, and that it was good, in their training, as well.  (Or maybe they all went to social work school).   If I hear one more ED or board member who has worked for, or served on, the board of one organization pontificate about what “nonprofit boards do” and/or “nonprofits do,” I just might explode.  And it is no better when the “knowledge” is based on two, or even three, board/organization experiences.

One of the favorite things our clients like to tell us is that they are unique.  Yup, I wrote that correctly:  each member of a group of people is telling us that it is unique.  Counter intuitive, yes?  Their troubles are unique:  they don’t have a sexy mission; there are bigger, more prestigious nonprofits in their community and the money/board members/media attention, etc., all goes to them and not to us, a smaller, less prestigious, less well-known nonprofit in the community; they deal with (special) clients that people don’t like to fund, and the excuses go on and on.

I, and the rest of The Nonprofit Center staff, are the ones who have to break the bad news to them:  sorry, but you are not unique; your problems are the problems of many other nonprofits, by which we mean tens of thousands.  How do we know this?  Because each year, we work with hundreds of nonprofits, which over three decades of being in existence is a lot of experience, history and, yes, real knowledge.  Add to that the fact that if we were to add up the combined years staff have worked in the nonprofit sector and with members of the nonprofit sector, including and before working at The Center, we have close to 150 years of nonprofit experience, data, etc.  And, we read:  the research of others, the musing of other experts; we monitor the chatter of other experts.

And yet still, people want to push back with their evidence of one.  Where is the logic in that? That said, I do understand why:  it is far safer to stick with your experience of one or two, and, yes,  oh so much easier to do so.  Listening to your experiences of one or two prevents you from having to change, stops you from having to do the very things – like fundraising, supervising the executive director, doing your share of the work – you don’t want to do as a board member.

If your organization is unique because the bigger, more prestigious nonprofits in your community get it all, why bother spending time cultivating relationships, looking for sponsorship dollars, wooing media attention?  Right?  If all your nonprofit experience (of one) tells you that the executive director is “always” on the board, you don’t have to have the conversation as to why that is inappropriate, a conflict of interest, destroys the checks and balances of the system as designed, etc.  If all your nonprofit experience of two tells you that nonprofit boards just let the finance committee review the finances and each individual board member doesn’t need to, you don’t have to commit the time to understanding the finances or reviewing the reports each month.

Claiming to be unique is an excuse to not have to do the hard work.  Extrapolating from your experience of one or a handful and treating it as if it were the nonprofit norm – or, dare I say it, a best practice – will not help your nonprofit ever move forward.  If that is what you want, keep trotting out your experience of you—or even you and “your friends.”



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.