Your Ingenious Nonprofit
Karen Eber Davis
The Goodwill CEO concluded his talk with a plea for donations: “We need your old socks and underwear.” Unfortunately, when many of us ask for help, we ask for “castoffs.” What do I mean? Even though we solve issues and offer communities amazing solutions and opportunities, we ask for too little to do our work.
This column focuses on processes that ingenious nonprofits use to increase their income. This month we consider our collective nonprofit mindset. What beliefs make the ingenious nonprofit stand out? One thing that makes them stand out is their willingness to insist that the value of their work be recognized. This mindset influences what they say and do, and why others partner with them and share resources. In short:
Two Realms at Once
Our culture places nonprofits in two realms simultaneously. On the one hand, nonprofits are special, endearing, and dare I say transcendent. We hope nonprofits will help us reach our highest aspirations. We esteem nonprofits that call to our hearts, energize us with possibilities, and stretch our imaginations.
Nonprofits solve mighty challenges—helping homeless families, supporting recovering addicts, and installing water pumps in distant villages. Others encounter, solve, and balm our most challenging problems. They guard our health, educate our children, and expose us to art. Nonprofits deserve the esteem they receive and should be placed in the “top-floor” realm.
However, nonprofits are often assigned to a second realm. This realm includes being less than competent, being ruled by passions, and requiring different standards. These “standards” include being:
For example, a business person calls a community foundation, “Can you find Sam, our manager, a nice nonprofit to run?” This implies that since Sam fails to meet the corporation’s demands, Sam will readily help the blind to see, balance a tricky budget, and keep an independent board on track. (Wisely, the foundation declines.) It is likely that you’ve also been the recipient of “pro-bono” services —which were a guise for someone who needed to practice their skills. Instead of top floor status, some even those within the sector, assign the sector and nonprofits to the bottom basement realm.
How did we get here? In part, because from the outside, the sector looks simple. Even though it looks simple (how hard can it be to do good?) it’s not. For example, unlike businesses and governments who seek one primary income stream, nonprofits manage seven. (For more, see my book, 7 Nonprofit Income Streams: Open the Floodgates to Sustainability!) When a CEO, with a background that included service as a CFO for a hospital, begins leading a healthcare nonprofit, he’s challenged. He expected that, given his expertise, the budget would be easy to balance. “I learned, I could easily balance the budget if I reduced critical services.”
Words Matter: Ingenious Nonprofits Ask for More Than Old Socks
Thankfully, the culture’s top floor thinking outweighs the bottom basement mindset. People give money. They donate used goods. Millions buy Girl Scout cookies and write checks. Often these gifts are not spare change or castoffs. Hurrah for everyone who gives, and for you, because you asked for these investments. To reach our goals, we must do more. To reach our high aspirations, we must:
Conclude your talks with a plea for help. “To solve the challenges our mission calls us to fix, we need your best. Your best dollars, and your best hours. Together we can change the world.”