Why Some Staff and Volunteers in Non-Profit Organizations Start to Obsess over Money

Most people who work or volunteer in non-profit organizations do so because of their interest or commitment to the mission or cause. Some of these people shift their focus to fretting and obsessing over money, talking very little about mission, values or vision. If they do in fact mention these words, it is really as a method to get more money for their chosen organization. Sometimes this shift affects entire organizations and they get into an endless loop of the majority of staff and volunteers chasing after donations. If they stumble upon moving the mission forward, they view it in terms of something they can share with donors to help raise more funds.

How does this happen?

1. A real financial crisis. The organization loses a major donor, membership drops, or the economy goes into recession. People start to wonder if their favorite non-profit will still be around five years from now. You hear phrases like “no money, no mission,” which is actually the opposite of what skilled leaders should be saying. Panic can set in and bad decisions begin to be made. Mission and vision get locked away in the back room, only to be pulled out and shown to donors from time to time.

2. Perceived financial crisis. Professionals who are coming from large companies or organizations are often stunned at the lack of infrastructure and shoestring budgets they see when they get into the non-profit world. They may immediately feel like it has to be “fixed,” that the organization cannot continue to live paycheck to paycheck.

3. Nothing else to measure. Non-profits often struggle to quantify what they do and how they help people. Budget performance is measurable. You can specify net profit or loss, or percentage of growth or decline. Some people naturally gravitate to numbers, so they focus almost entirely on budget. Obviously the need is to develop other methods for measuring impact and effectiveness and insist that these are viewed in the same serious light as the budget statistics.

What’s the downside?

Non-profit organizations have limited people resources with which to accomplish their mission. While the annual report may show 10 or 20% of the organization’s funds going toward fundraising, the reality may be much different. 60 or 70% of staff or volunteer time may be consumed by fundraising tasks such as managing or supporting major events, staying in touch with current and potential donors, etc. These people are often reported as “program staff,” when the reality of their jobs is much different.

If you are on the inside, and wish to stay there, then push internally for metrics that demonstrate mission impact. Listen to what senior leaders are saying and watch out for phrases such as “no money, no mission,” or “that’s nice, but it doesn’t help us meet payroll or pay the rent.” When asked what kind of year they had as an organization, listen to see if the first words have to do with money.

Robert Egger has two great quotes on this issue in his book “Begging for Change:”

“If you chase money, you’ll be on an endless loop. If you chase results, the money will come.”

“The most effective nonprofits find the connection between purpose and effort by identifying the priorities of those they’re serving.”

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