January 20, 2015

Are You Only Asking for Old Socks and Underwear?

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:

  • People partner with you because of your words and deeds.
  • Our beliefs determine our words and the conviction in our voice.
  • By sharing the importance of their nonprofit’s work, ingenious nonprofits engage people.
  • In turn, some of them invest time, money, and resources that create nonprofit abundance.

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:

  • Judged by the amount spent on overhead—not results.
  • Required to charge less than for-profits in many government contracts.
  • Constrained by public opinion about how often supports can be requested, while everyone readily accepts the grocer’s weekly flyer.
  • Willing to accommodate low-quality services and employees.

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 the 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 Socs

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:

1. Claim Our Place in the Leader’s Circle. Nonprofits tackle tough problems that corporations and governments shun. They solve dilemmas, inspire, and transform communities—often innovatively and with limited resources. Help nonprofits do more good work. Remove one of your burdens: instead of accepting, or worse, assigning yourself basement realm status, recognize the sector, your organization, and yourself for leadership. Take your place at the leadership table.

2. Bottom Basement Thinking Calls for Education. You’re not going to change the minds of everyone who asks about overhead (see one of my articles about overhead here), but we can educate those closest to you about the need to invest in infrastructure. We can educate them on how to ask better questions about results. Say, “Years ago all we had was overhead, now we have much better tools to show our results.” Then provide them the data and stories that prove it. Start with your inner circle.

3. Ask For More. Big problems require big solutions. If you ask for too little, you can’t create results that move the needle. One reason nonprofits are underfunded is that we ask for too little. We ask for used underwear and socks. Ingenious nonprofits ask for more. While they don’t always get what they ask, over time they receive more—enough for it to make the critical difference. Enough for them to stand out as successes. Be bold.

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.”


Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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