Who Do You Think We Are?

Image One:  Do-Gooders Needing Money 

In last week’s blog, The Community Contract, we outlined what many community members think of nonprofits: do-good organizations who are poor and unsophisticated, fighting an uphill battle, always asking for money. And it’s no wonder people who hear our pleas for help think that. How many times have you heard, or maybe you’ve  even presented, appeals from nonprofits along the lines of “we need money or else we’re in jeopardy of not meeting our goals (maybe even the extreme, “we’ll have to close our doors.” ) What kind of message does that send?

Joanne will never forget the time she was defending her request for funding in front of a funder’s resource allocation committee for the first time as executive director. The previous year had been a rough one for the agency. When she presented her arguments for more funding, she outlined all the results that her agency had accomplished in the past year. She thanked the committee for their past support and laid out the plans for the coming year. When she was asked about last year’s struggles, she acknowledged them and detailed her upcoming plans in relation to fixing the rather serious problems. When she was finished one committee member said, “I’m glad to hear the agency has done so much. And thank you for being so open with us about your challenges. We all had our doubts about continuing to fund an agency that was going downhill. Last year, the presenter talked about the need for money so the agency could survive.”

See how the previous presenter had depicted the agency as needy? And the misgivings that created among the donors? Joanne ended up getting the funding she requested at its full amount. See how she turned around their thinking by coming from a position of strength as opposed to weakness? See how the donors responded to that power? The situation of the nonprofit was still dire. And the committee knew that. But the organization was shown as capable of overcoming its challenges and had a plan to face the future. And that made all the difference.

Image Two:  Our Cause is So Worthy 

Almost everyone acknowledges that nonprofits do necessary, important work. Most people understand the dire need for the services nonprofits offer. Maybe not each individual organization, but certainly as a sector. Because nonprofits are mission- oriented, as opposed to profit-focused, people can see the dedication and commitment of the nonprofit workforce. None of that is in question.

What is in question is whether being a worthy cause in need of money is enough. You often here this in statements like “our agency does so much good, I don’t understand why more people don’t support us.” Sometimes the appeal for support is guilt-based, like a “look at all the good we do, you should support us.” Or sometimes you get a vague “Join us in making the world a better place by helping our clients.” None of these statements really defines the benefits to the donors that will be realized by supporting you.

In statements like these, you are only appealing to donors based on a limited set of values, which means your cause will appeal to a limited group of people. Appeal to more people by appealing to different groups with values other than just doing good. For example, if they’re business professionals, they may want to hear about return on investment. If they are municipal or state leaders, they will want to hear about economic development and impact. If they are legislators, they want to hear about how issues affect voters. If they are individual donors, they want to see the social impact your organization has on the community. In each case, you need to appeal to the different types of supporters based in the benefits of what’s in it for them, not only that you are doing good. Being a good cause is not enough. Not everyone carries the same passion for your cause that you do. You need another way to reach them. Telling them what’s in it for them usually works.

Image Three:  The Big Bureaucracy

At times, you may hear some variation of “nonprofits just don’t use resources wisely because they’re so bureaucratic. It takes forever for them to make decisions.” Where in the world would they get an idea like that?

Perhaps their experiences as board members. Often, board members are not onboarded correctly and think they must make the day-to-day decisions of the agency. Or the board chair is inexperienced in controlling group discussions. Or there is no agenda for the meetings. Or one topic keeps being revisited even though a decision has already been made. And the result is that board meetings may go on aimlessly for hours. People end up feeling that they are doing nothing meaningful.

Joanne remembers one of her friends, an ex-board member to an unnamed nonprofit, tell her about what board meetings were like for her. That they droned on and on. And how the poor executive director couldn’t buy office supplies without board approval. If the executive director bought them anyway, he was asked to justify the purchase before the finance committee. The ex-board member felt that she was wasting her time on trivial things, which is why she now bears the title ex-board member. And now here she was telling Joanne about the inadequacies of that particular organization. How much do you want to bet Joanne wasn’t the only person she talked to? How much community support do you think she quashed?

Sometimes it’s volunteer committee work experiences that lead to dissatisfaction. Decisions may not be made in a timely manner and it take forever to get something done. Staff may not have the authority to direct the needed resources to move ahead. When decisions are always made at the top, a logjam occurs at the levels below. Plus, people learn not to take initiative, that they will be chastised for their efforts to move forward. And then they give up. This lack of motivation can happen at any level of the organization – board, staff, or volunteers. Then you have bigger problems. Because if your people are not excited about their efforts, they won’t attract other supporters to the cause. In fact, many of them will give up and leave the agency. How many dissatisfied committee volunteers are out there telling stories of their frustrations?

Long story short – onboard your board and committee members correctly, make sure board and committee service is meaningful, and give your staff the authority to tap into the resources they need to move ahead.

Image Four:  Lack of Business Savvy

Sometimes you hear “the only difference between nonprofits and for profits is their tax status. If nonprofits were run like businesses, they would have more money.”

A statement like this assumes nonprofits have little understanding of basic business principles, lack an overall business strategy, or are poor business managers. In fact, the difference is that a for-profit’s surplus operating income goes into the hands of the business owners while a nonprofit’s surplus operating income must be invested back into the mission of the agency. 

In most cases, for-profit businesses are perceived to have more resources available for operations than nonprofits. And that may be true. Nonprofits are often not given the generous financing agreements for-profits are. For example, for-profit government contracts generally, although not always, include enough available funding to cover overhead expenses. Government contracts available to nonprofits generally, not always, do not include adequate funding to completely cover those same costs. And there are often added compliance costs for nonprofits that are not levied at for-profits. For example, financial audit and reporting requirements. However, that does not mean nonprofits are inept. It means they are given less resources to start with while needing to do more with them. No wonder they’re perceived as poor do-gooders.

Nonprofits have to overcome this perception of poor do-gooders if we are to attract substantial community support. We cannot come from a position of weakness and expect great results. We must come from a position of strength.

And how do we do that? We get to know our potential supporters and their perspectives. We state our benefits to them in language they understand and concepts they think are important. We start changing the nature of the conversations about us. We define who we are and break the typical stereotypes. We start to control our own identity. Like when Joanne went before that resource allocation committee, nothing plans for how they would change about their situation.

Many people think of nonprofits as stereotypically weak. The way we approach potential supporters may contribute to that image. How we run meetings and make organizational decisions can determine how we are perceived. The fact that we may have less access to resources such as venture capital selling stocks, raising prices, to name a few, and talk about it also affects how we are seen. It is time we take control of the conversation and establish the immense community support we need.

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