Weight Watcher’s for Nonprofits (Or Does this 501(c)(3) Make Me Look Fat???

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 22nd, 2008 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Why is it that Americans always associate growth with good? (Except, of course, when it comes to personal weight growth, which most people generally perceive as bad.) The bigger the better, the more the merrier, etc. And the bigger something gets, the “more better” it is.

Well, I beg to differ. In recent years, the rate of growth in the nonprofit sector has outpaced that in the for profit sector. And people hail that as a great sign. Of what, I ask? Does this growth mean that nonprofits are providing better service? Does this mean that needs are being met in innovative ways? Does this mean that there are sufficient resources available to meet demand? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

In actuality, what this means is that individuals wishing to start a nonprofit are, by the very act of starting that nonprofit, not recognizing the first rule of building a sustainable nonprofit. They are not managing their wants like a business. They want to start a nonprofit. They are passionate about something—from abused children to the infirm, from education to the arts—and they want to act on that passion. They want to be the leaders of their invention. But the nonprofit sector is not about “me” but about others. And more often than not, the needs of others are going to be best served not by spawning another nonprofit but by taking the energy, passion, creativity, and time of that would-be-founder and applying it within an organization that already has the board, the infrastructure, the reputation, the access to funders, etc. But, in that there may be less glory—for the individual.

In some arenas, there probably is truth to the saying “divide and conquer.” But not in the nonprofit sector. It is far easier to start a nonprofit than it is to sustain one. In the end, it is a zero sum game when it comes to dollars, board members and other volunteers, staff, clients, supporters, etc. The more nonprofits there are, obviously, the less each of us might get. As history reveals, the weak are sustained longer than they should be, while the strong struggle with unnecessarily limited resources longer than they should. And while we dilute the resources, we risk diluting the impact on the very people we sought to help in the first place.
If we want to maximize the good that those in the nonprofit sector say they want to achieve, if we want to maximize our strength to have that impact, then the sector should be shrinking, not growing.

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.