Anna Quindlen, in her new book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, writes about what she sees in the mirror when she looks at herself, vs. what others see. She describes herself as “not pretty.” She goes on to note that a recently read biography of Mary Anne Evans, known to most people as George Elliot it was suggested that had Mary Anne been “more pleasing to look at,” she would not have written her seven novels, but would, rather have married, borne children and lived the expected life of women of the Victorian era. She would have traded being an acclaimed author for doing what was expected.
Quindlen makes her point explicitly: that when women, then and too often still now, have the option between a “cupid’s bow mouth or an enduring literature reputation,” most will take the former. Form over reputation.
While listening to the recently (my first foray into audio books), I was so distracted by this opposition of form vs. function that runs rampant in the nonprofit sector that I stopped listening to Quindlen’s voice (not a bad thing, as she is a much better writer than reader). All I could do was think about organizations that have recently suffered because more attention was being paid to the image than to the substance.
Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer of the 1st century BC, puts it best: “A good reputation is worth more than money.” If they knew it back then, why do so many nonprofits squander their reputations now with so little regard for the consequences? Just look at the nonprofit scandals of late: be it Penn State, University of Virginia, Susan G. Komen, Hull House, or a host of other headlines plucked from Google Alerts. You’ll see what looking like an idiot, a bobble head, or simply ill-equipped to do a job right does to the reputation of an organization and the individuals involved.
Publilius was particularly correct when it comes to nonprofits. Reputation is more important than money; without a positive reputation, getting the money will be harder than ever.
When was the last time anyone at your organization – staff, board members volunteers – had a conversation about the organization’s reputation. If you don’t know the answer to this question, it hasn’t been recent enough.
Ever done an reputation inventory? Actually taken the time to stop an take stock of what the word on the street is about your organization? Its work? The staff? Ever asked the direct question of clients, collaborators, competitors, funders: What’s the reputation of…how does it compare to other organizations, such us, such as…?
I’d like to believe that collecting this kind of information happens as a routine part of strategic planning, but I’m not that naive. Besides, we know that there are way too many nonprofits that fly by the seats of their pants and don’t even engage in strategic planning. But even if everyone were doing strategic planning, and even if every organization was asking and collecting answers as to their reputation on the street, collecting this data every three years to create the next iteration of your strategic plan, is way to infrequent to gather this data.
A reputation, like so many things, is not a once-and-done and set for life type of thing. It is a moving target, and therefore, must be constantly monitored, managed and protected. It can be little things that change people’s perceptions of your organization, such as an unhappy client, a program that receives a bad review or doesn’t go as well as planned, an allegation of mishandle money, people or vendors. Whispered in the wrong ears, the the maelstrom starts and reputations shift.
And with the power of “guilt by association,” if one nonprofit is blasted in the headlines, we all take a hit.
Unfortunately, too many organizations – and I put this at the feet of both boards and executive leadership – don’t’ think of reputation until lit has been damaged, at which point it may be too late. It is easier to repair a reputation when you know what it was.
This isn’t a diversion from mission and money. It is central to both. So get started and find out what people really think of your organization.