Get with the Program

As I was reading Trevor Neilson’s Huffington Post Impact article, “What Roubini Just Said and Why Those Who Work in Philanthropy Should Listen,” I could feel my blood pressure rising. I had to check the dateline and make sure that this was not written years ago because some of the advice being given should already have been adopted.

A Storm’s Brewing

Neilson opens by pointing to Nouriel Roubini, crediting him with being among “the few who predicted the collapse of the United States housing market and the worldwide recession which started in 2008.” He describes Roubini’s latest prediction that we are facing a global “perfect storm” of financial collapse that will ruin the poor, crush those teetering on the edge of financial stability, and kneecap the rest of the public.

Citing this prediction of doom and gloom, Neilson suggests three courses of action for nonprofits including the creation of inventive fundraising campaigns, listening and reacting to client input, and pursuing real world results over solely passionate endeavors.

It took me a moment to digest these suggestions before taking to Twitter and sharing my views. In short, nonprofits should already be creative about fundraising. This was a lesson I learned back in 2008.

Lessons from 2008

I was at the head of a communications team after our nonprofit lost over $11 million (more than a quarter) from our endowment in 2008, faced significant lay-offs and closed three facilities statewide.

As we closed three MSPCA adoption centers, a year after we closed one of our hospitals, our creativity and dedication to our mission ensured the continuation of animal welfare services in each city. As we rolled out the closures, beginning in early 2009, we sold one facility to an animal welfare organization, another we rented for $1 a year to a new nonprofit we helped to form since announcing our financial situation, and the third we provided to a public/private partnership that we also helped to shape.

I know you may be asking, “That’s great, but what about fundraising?”


Too many nonprofits are protective of their donor base to a fault. Poaching is a justified fear, however it paralyzes too many programs and prevents growth. In today’s social environment it is required that nonprofits share the spotlight, many times pushing it away to another organization that is also doing a great job. It’s called alignment.

Get Off Your Horse

Neilson’s second suggestion perplexed me at first. Of course nonprofits should be nimble enough to change direction, build on old plans or scrap programs in favor of what is necessary. However, I take issue with the idea that nonprofits should invest the “minimum amount of time necessary into the design of their products or services before they are launched.”

Steve Jobs famously stated, “It is hard to design by focus groups because most of the time people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It’s hard, but needs to be done day-in-day-out until it seeps into the organization’s culture. The distance from the street to the desk has grown over the years among some of the worst nonprofits and they are finding it difficult to adapt in today’s social environment.

Any nonprofit worth their salt should be on the ground, speaking with their clients, and formulating programs based on this information in combination with some of the best thinkers in the sector. After launching a product, a program should not necessarily require large adjustments if you listened to your client base, however the staff members running the program should possess the ability to loosen the reins, give up any pride of ownership, and make changes based on new developments or voices.

The issue commonly facing nonprofits at the program launch stage is that its designers may have been under the impression that they know best and are basing new initiatives on an outdated model.

This goes to the heart of Neilson’s third suggestion, that nonprofits have the passion but neither the resources nor the inclination to measure their impact. Measurement tools need to be accepted prior to a program launch along with a vision of what success will look like.

Hire for Success

Nonprofits know that without passionate staff you will not get the results. It’s a tough nut to crack, you need employees that share a passion for the mission however you also need staff members who possess equal enthusiasm for measuring results and being held accountable. As Neilson points out, this is lacking at many organizations.

You may think passion and a results driven attitude is an easy combination to find but too many nonprofits contain polarized staff, an entrenched workforce using outdated tools alongside newbies not yet in possession of the sector knowledge they need to make their tools the most effective.

My office once abutted a human resources hiring manager with an open door and a loud phone voice. Every interview she conducted included a question about why the candidate is passionate about the organization’s mission. This was an easy box to check, but I never heard her ask what success would look like, across departments. Not once was a perspective employee asked how they measure success.

Overall, this article is a wake up call for nonprofits. They better get moving, but if this is their first time they are hearing alarm bells I think they may not be in the right business.


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