Tote that Barge

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 20th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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“Do more.  For more.  With less.”

Sounds like a slogan supporting the war effort.  I can see it under a picture of Uncle Sam or Rosie the Riveter or Grant Wood’s American Gothic.  It could be powerful!   Unfortunately, it is not a war slogan, unless you mean a war on nonprofits.

The fact that it is the current mantra of the head of a large nonprofit (and a funder of other nonprofits), is, at a minimum, insulting to all who toil in those direct service nonprofits trying to improve the quality of life for all, and at worst, perpetuates one of the many myths about nonprofits that have so hampered the sector for eons.   I won’t name her or that nonprofit here, but you can find out with a little research.

A huge stride happened this week:  the CEOs of three organizations—GuideStar, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator—came out with a joint letter to the public condemning the use of overhead percentages as a way to evaluate the worthiness and goodness of a nonprofit.  What makes this so striking is that these three former, and major, proponents of doing just that have now recognized their error of their ways!  Hallelujah!  This is a huge step in the right director and their voices now join the legions of us others who have been championing that position for decades.

Now we need people in positions that command media attention and who, rightly or wrongly, are looked to by donors as speaking “the truth,” to help debunk another myth, rather than being the purveyors of that myth.  The idea that nonprofits can successfully deliver quality products to an ever expanding number of clients for continually shrinking dollars is, simply put, an impossibility, not to mention a set-up and huge disservice.

Show me one other business where having less leads to producing more of a quality product.  Fewer people on the assembly line mean either fewer products or more law suits at the end.  Reducing the number of attorneys in a firm means fewer billable hours or more billable hours and fewer customers, as the ones who got the inferior work product take their business elsewhere.  A reduction in the number of satellite offices means outreach to fewer clients which means a decline in business.  Leaner means—be they humans, machines, dollars, whatever—in every business arena leads to a reduction on the end results.

Nonprofit businesses are no different.  We simply cannot do more, for more with less.  And anyone who thinks otherwise is either a) stupid or b) scamming the public and dissing the hundreds of thousands of nonprofits that work so hard to do as much as they can for as many as they can with the little that they have.

Such a mantra sets us all up for failure, and sends too many to the therapist’s couch.  Why a supposed supporter of the sector and, technically, one of us, (whose total compensation reported on the organization’s 2012 990 was over $328,000, not something you see in the average run of the mill nonprofit she is suggesting isn’t doing as much as they can for as many as they can with the limited resources they already have) would want to suggest that nonprofits aren’t already sufficiently stretched is beyond me.  Why this person would want to explain that the vast, vast majority of nonprofits already operate as incredibly lean organizations maximizing every penny and human resource to touch as many people as they can with their mission is beyond me.  To suggest otherwise, to suggest that there is more yet that we should expect of these hardworking, dedicated individuals is beyond me.  But it sends a clear message to the general public and other funders:  despite the fact that fewer of you are giving to nonprofits than you were seven to 10 years ago, and that those of you who are giving are giving less than seven to 10 years ago, nonprofits just aren’t doing enough.  And they should!

When was the last time she spoke to a real nonprofit executive?  They would tell her the hoops they have jumped through to continue to serve as many as they could with ever declining resources.  They would tell her of the incredible commitment of staff and board members working ever harder under less than enviable circumstances.  They would tell her how everyone is, finally, hitting the wall.  And they would tell her of the guilt that such statements engender in those who already wear hair shirts worrying that they aren’t doing enough yet knowing they are doing as much and as well as they possibly can under the circumstances.

They would also tell her what she should be saying, what they, ever so slowly, are coming to understand.  That rather than trying to be all things to all people, rather than trying to jump through the expectation hoops of funders, rather than trying to continue to do more, for more with less, they must be strategic and smart, focus on their core competencies and do what they do better than anyone else for as many people as their resources allow them to in order to deliver a top notch quality to their clients.  After all, nonprofit clients deserve the very best.

And nonprofits doing really well don’t deserve to be turned on by their very own.



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.