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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Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

New legislation or new policies that support people with disabilities come around too infrequently.  When they do happen, you will see calls to action that basically say “If you care about people with disabilities support this. Email your elected officials, and send us a donation to help us get this passed.”

The problem is that most people never read the legislation or policy they are asked to support. Not every piece of pro-disability legislation is a good piece of legislation. The latest rallying point is the CRPD, a UN Treaty that President Obama has signed and the Senate is considering for ratification. I will not be writing my congressman, posting on Twitter, or sending anyone a donation to support this.

Two serious problems.

The first issue has to do with the definition “disability.” There isn’t one in the CRPD. We already struggle with limited resources for those who are in the most need of them, and this type of dilution of the idea of disability will not help the situation. Some think it is a good idea to greatly broaden the concept of disability. This may sound good philosophically, but the practical applications will result in reduced services and support for those who could most benefit from them.

The second issue is the idea of the enforcement of disability protections and policies moving to an international body. Today we have the right to hold our elected officials accountable for how they support people with disabilities and their families. Imagine a congressman being able to say that this issue is not something he can influence, you need to call the enforcement office in Switzerland. CRPD heads us in that direction.

Why so much support in the disability community?

Why are so many organizations in support of the CRPD? There are many good aspects of the CRPD, especially related to human dignity and the rights of people with disabilities. It is a large, sweeping worldwide document that attracts support and helps fundraising. Once a few major disability organizations jump on the bandwagon, other groups don’t want to be left out.

It is easy to understand the attraction of the CRPD. I think that too often people with disabilities feel forgotten or pushed to the margins of society. A sweeping international treaty seems like a good way to bring disabilities to the forefront.

In the end good people can disagree about the merits of the CRPD and whether it should be ratified. Some may read and fully understand it and its shortcomings, and decide to advocate for it anyway. The important thing is to carefully consider the merits and drawbacks before making an informed decision.

Whitlock on target about the Penn State child abuse scandal

While I often find Jason Whitlock annoying, he is right on the money in his editorial (linked below) today about the Penn State scandal.

No matter what the exact facts are, this appears to have been mishandled… badly. How can educated, experienced professionals mishandle child abuse? I think there is a paralyzing fear in many institutions and organizations about the corporate brand and finances. Harming the corporate brand means less money from donors, sales of books, etc., thus creating great financial harm.

The peer pressure to protect the reputation of the organization can be very strong. A few believe it is more important to protect the integrity of the organization and its people.

The weighty financial interests of any organization can push many well meaning leaders into silence. I have personally seen it happen on more than one occasion. If you hear the phrase “no money, no mission,” you know that person’s ethics card has been put aside.

I have also seen problems handled bravely and with integrity. I have seen leaders who were not worried about reputation or major donors, but about doing the best thing for the people they lead. They determined that any issues with donors or bad press would eventually work themselves out. They also believed that if doing the right thing meant closing the doors of the organization or institution, then so be it.

All of this is very easy to talk about in theory, but very difficult when you are in a room full of people in the midst of what appears to be a crisis. I have personally seen leaders make people-harming decisions for the “good of the organization.” Today, we are seeing out this turns out at Penn State.

Whitlock’s article: http://goo.gl/8O4tu

3 R’s for Excelling in Job Interviews

I always find job interviews exhausting, whether I am the interviewer, or occasionally in the past as an interviewee. These meetings can be among the most important of your life, so it is critical to have a strategy going into it. In this post, I am going to outline three principles that are especially important for people seeking professional positions.

Read the job description.

Like any other work task, you will find individual interviewers and entire search committees who do not know what they are doing. However, most interview committees are trying to determine if you have the skills and the temperament to do the job. It is frustrating, and an interview killer if the interviewee is not intimately familiar with the job description.

It takes hours of time spread over several weeks or months to develop job descriptions, post the position various places, screen dozens of resumes, and schedule interviews. If someone comes in and has evidently not evaluated the requirements of the job and matched it with their own education and experience, then they are probably not going to get hired.

Research the company or organization.

A common question is why do you want this job, and why do you want to work for this company. If you cannot respond to this basic and foundational information, you probably just blew the interview.

In this day of easy internet searches, it is easy to get the information you need. This also allows you to ask intelligent questions yourself. For example, as part of the interview you could ask “I see the organization has had five CEO’s in the last three years, can you explain why this turnover has occurred?” If the interviewer(s) do not know the answer, or just look at each other uncomfortably, maybe you should look elsewhere for a job.

Rehearse the interview.

There are plenty of sites on the internet that list questions that are asked in interviews. In fact, some of them even suggest good answers. Some managers even go to these same sites to get their questions!

You should also rehearse your answers to questions about your own resume. This is called owning your resume. If you put “skilled in office mediation” for example, you need to be able to explain what this means, and how you got to be so skilled.

As I said above, remember that most interviewers are trying to determine if you have the skills and temperament to do the job. There is also the underlying consideration if you would be someone the interviewer(s) would want to work with. In the end, these meetings may be among the most important of your life, so be ready for them!

“But we have no choice…”

Now that the massive bailout bill failed in the House, everyone is watching to see what will happen next. Are we going to be standing is soup lines, or are things not going to be as dire as predicted? No one really knows.

The thing that continues to catch my attention is “we have to do this.” It does not matter what your principles are, or that you have an uneasy feeling that this is not right, “we just have no choice.” Ironically, Democrats and Republicans are asked to violate different principles. Democrats, who don’t like giving money to large corporations, and Republicans who don’t like government interfering with the free markets.

I have usually found it is the most money obsessed, ethically challenged person in the room who continues to say “I know you don’t want to do this, but we just have no choice. The financial consequences will be dire. You have to vote with me, or support my plan.”

While most agree that there needs to be government action to protect those of us on main street, beware the “but we have no choice” people.  They usually have a flawed or unprincipled plan, and just want you to cast aside your own beliefs and principles. It is a form of bullying, and we need to stand up to it.

Road to dysfunction

    The big news in the sporting world this week has been the firing of the president and general manager of the Detroit Lions,  Matt Millen. He had been president for seven years. Millen was one of those leaders, he was going to save the organization, and he was convinced he knew what he was doing. As one sports commentator said, Millen took a mediocre team and made it worse.  

     

    The larger story though, is that this team organization has been dysfunctional for almost 15 years (if not longer). It does not seem to matter who comes in, or what they do, the Lions rarely have a winning season, and have won one playoff game  in recent history.

     

     My undergraduate degree was in organizational behavior, so I am interested in things like corporate culture. Some organizations and companies seem to always find a way to be successful and when talk rolls around to “who is the best in the country” their names are mentioned most years. Then, there are the mediocre ones, who seem mired in a “next year” mentality. People come and go, but the mediocrity stays the same.

     

     The Detroit Lions are a case study in mediocre, dysfunctional organizations, and why they stay that way. 

     

    They are constantly looking for the quick fix. 

    Detroit drafted a fast wide receiver three years in a row. They even traded for a flashy wide receiver one year. Why? Because their leadership said “Well, what we need is the right wide receiver.  If only… we had a fast wide receiver we would be in the Super Bowl.” Everyone around the table nodded and said “wonderful idea.”  “

     

    In reality, building a winning organization takes years of selecting the right players, finding the right staff, and putting an offensive and defensive line (infrastructure) in place. You must have the right people in place who know how to do that.

     

     They don’t know how to hire the right people– and keep them.

     One coaching solution was to hire an old coach who should have already been retired (Bobby Ross), then they swung the other way and hired the bright young talent who had shown tremendous potential for success (Steve Mariucci).

     They have also hired people for coaching positions who have never had experience in those positions before. No other organization would have selected these people for the positions they were given with the Lions. Too many of their draft picks are players no one else wanted.

     The talented and competent people soon start looking for reasons to get out. They get frustrated at the environment they are in and how it seems to suppress excellence and success.

     So the bottom line is that success in any company or organization boils down to the right strategy at the right time, and having the right people and resources in place who can execute that strategy. It’s an easy formula, but a difficult place to get to. Some have never gotten there, and never will.

     

     

Three Reasons to Start Your Career at a Non-Profit

Many young people who major in some field of professional psychology are interested in working for non-profit organizations. They may be somewhat anxious about pursuing this interest because salaries and benefits are lower than what they would receive in government or education, and certainly in the corporate arena. However, as I reflect back over the 16 years I spent in small non-profit organizations, I think there are three reasons someone should consider beginning their career at a place with 10-12 employees or less.

You will develop a wider array of skills

Because of my experience in small non-profit organizations, I have more skills than I likely would have developed had I started where I work now. Among other things, I can design and publish a web page, use an Adobe product to produce a flyer or newsletter, use Excel for a budget report, troubleshoot software and hardware problems on a computer, write a grant, prepare for an audit and manage an event. I mention these things because where I work now we have entire departments that do each of these. I would have learned maybe one or two, but not all of them. Even now, each of these comes in handy from time to time, and I am glad I have the know how.

You will become a big picture thinker and advance quicker

One of the dangers of working for a large organization is that you tend to get focused on your own department or division. Large organizations are complex and difficult to understand. In small organizations, almost everyone is involved in every operational aspect. If there is an event, for example, everyone pitches in, not just event services.

Non-profit organizations are also very generous with advancements and titles. While one might need 20 years of related experience and a graduate degree to be a director or senior manager in a large organization, five years of experience and a bachelor’s degree might get you the same title in a smaller organization. There are organizations with two or three employees who have a president and two vice-presidents. While the title may not mean much in reality, it does give you the “executive experience” claim for your resume.

However, be prepared for a change when you transition to a larger organization. It is not unusual to be senior manager at a small non-profit and program assistant at a larger one. Some people also have difficulty going from being the go-to leader to just one of a large team.

Working with few resources and supporting special causes at the grassroots level

When you work for a non-profit you learn how to make things happen with little or no resources. While this is seen primarily as a negative and stress producing reality, it also has positive benefits. Once you transition to a larger organization you will find that you can make “tight resources” go a lot further. You may also be the person appreciating all the resources you have at your disposal while the people around you are grumbling about what is available to them.

Working for a non-profit also gives you the experience of working at the grassroots level. You understand how to organize people in ways that are not always ideal to get things done. You also have the opportunity to support causes that may never get big or have national prominence. These causes and organizations have always had an important part to play in our country. Even if they are considered by most to be niche issues, you can play a part in benefiting those who care about the cause, or who are personally affected by the issue.

The reality is that most highly qualified people either avoid small non-profits, or stay for an average of two or three years. The stress of volunteer boards and committees, the extreme parcity of resources, and the sacrifice of salary and benefits is too much for most to take on or endure for any length of time. However, it is a career option that young people in particular should seriously consider.