How shifting the non-profit paradigm can save your organization

Comedian, Ali Wong, has a bit that begins something like this.  "I once worked for a nonprofit.  Yeah, anyone else ever been a ****ing martyr?"The group laughs because it's true.  And then, well, a number of us sob.  Again, because it's true.  Weird how organizations aspiring to discuss issues are so often afflicted by them.  Traditionally, overtime work, low wages, lack of benefits, little professional development, no strategic assessment, and thus, low workforce retention (excluding the untiring founder, of course), fosters a vicious circle of burnout, making more fragile an already scanty infrastructure.

As a professional nonprofit worker, having spent my entire adult life in the field, I'm only now starting to mend from that harmful relationship.  One advantage of this twelve-year experience is the keen understanding I've been given to make the following humble assessments and recommendations.

To their honor, nonprofit organizations are gurus in boot straps and lean budgets.  They know how to roll up their sleeves and put their nose to the grindstone, how to save money and do things on the cheap.  That is, to save on electricity, heating, water, office stock, staffing, and payroll...and still push initiatives forward.  They were into recycling, reducing, and reusing before it ever got trendy!  Furthermore, nonprofits can mobilize volunteer assets reasonably efficiently, at least for short bursts.  If the desire is to survive, then without a doubt, nonprofits understand just how to do that.

The draw back of knowing how to do more with less is that organizations get used to just maintaining less.  Surviving is good, but as a mission, it's a pretty low bar.  Generally speaking, nonprofits don't learn how to thrive, how to create surplus, and how to take care of their own.  It's not surprising, however, when you think about the role of identity.  How can you define yourself by what you're not?  Or worse yet, by what you snub?  This is a rhetorical question, of course - I mean, you can't.  Such is the issue with the not-for-profit archetype.  It's got deficiency, victimology, opposition and a touch of paranoia seriously embedded in its name and narrative.  These features are then sustained by the false economy in which nonprofits reside:  The grants structure.  I say "false"because it rejects the essential rules of supply and demand.  To illustrate, there's something not right about a program or organization that is well-funded but poorly attended.  That's when a quiet voice in my mind might go off, "Someone's cheating."And because this organization never troubled itself to diversify its earning stream or provide real products or services to its intended community, when the funding isn't renewed, they predictably cry foul.

Not to fret.  Knowing is half the battle after all. What I'm about to endorse, I've already seen some nonprofits doing incredibly well.

1: Stop the whining. I mean it.  If repeated and belligerent anxiety and self-pity got anyone anywhere, I'd say by all means.  But there is no person or group that has ever implicated or lamented their way to success.  You're either a victim or a victor.  Pick one.

2: Ask the question that a lot of mom-and-pop shop owners ask:  How can I help you?  How may I be of service to you?  What can I offer you?  Commerce (or any advancement for that matter) is inhibited by those who always take but never give.  On the flip-side, the more people you help, the more social and cash worth you will accumulate.  Mind you, this is why entrepreneurs usually look at their positions as problem-solvers or life-enhancers.  "Help how?"you might ask.  Listen.  Put your proposal and your wants on ice for once.  You'll be astonished by the network you'll develop, the support you'll garner, and the opportunities you'll summon when you stop talking and practice authentic empathy for your fellow person.  This applies to your workforce too, not just patrons or possible benefactors.

3:  Maintain good company.  Find good role models.  We tell little ones constantly, Don't befriend with losers.  They'll keep you down.  Ask of your nonprofit, What is our business approach?  Who has an exceptional business model?  How can we recreate a good business model?  How can we align with those who have fine business models? A business model will include a fiscal strategy, a multi-year plan, and a refining of core values.

3.5:  Have I mentioned?...keep good company.  When hiring, don't just look for personality or someone you can closely supervise.  Dream big!  Find qualified personnel who typify personal and professional progression.  The kind of individuals who embody excellence and inspire excellence in others.  Individuals that are healthy, positive, avid, action-oriented learners and leaders.  This includes members of your board, who aren't only there to fulfill 501(c)(3) legal requisites.  A capable board can move boulders.  As Jim Collins says in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't, A players hire A+ players.  But B players hire C players, and C players hire D players.  Consider the outcomes when you piece together your team.

Bear in mind, "nonprofit"is a legal status.  It doesn't have to be your organization's way of thinking or culture.  Martyrs are tightly associated with courage.  But they're also closely associated with being dead.  If beauty, education, fairness or quality of life speak to your purpose, manifest those values by completely living them yourself - now.  Extend that image of wellness to your employees, your merchants, your colleagues, and all the good folks that make your firm's existence possible.  In prioritizing a more positive mindset and type of operations, people will recognize the liveliness of your organization by its contagious ease and enthusiasm.  And who, at any level of giving, wouldn't defend that?