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.”

Microsoft customer service — not so much

Yesterday I had the simple task of canceling a Microsoft subscription to SkyDrive. Last year I added 20gb for $10, mainly to try out the service. You have to cancel it before it renews, or it does so automatically and there are no refunds. So, since it is an online service that should be simple, right? No, despite what the help forums tell you, you have to call. That’s right, to cancel an online service you have to call someone in the Philippines. Wait, before you call, you have to verify your account, via a code they will text you.


Well, I didn’t want to do that, so I decided just to delete the payment method on the account so it wouldn’t be charged. You can’t do that… without calling the call center in the Philippines.  So, I went through the process of selecting to have someone call me.

Microsoft_account-help 2

To their credit, someone called me within three minutes. Well, of course, he couldn’t talk to me without sending a code to my cell phone. It took me a minute to understand what the rep was saying because his English skills were a little limited. Finally, I understood, and read back the code. Shortly after I did, there was a loud buzz and the call disconnected. Yes, I had to go through the entire process again, only to get the loud buzz and be disconnected again. After the third times of entering codes, talking to someone, explaining why I wanted to cancel the subscription, and almost begging them to do so, it was done. Time spent: 40 minutes.

I had a similar experience when I went to install a new copy of Windows 8 on my computer. After installation, I received a notice that said I couldn’t activate online, they I had to CALL to verify. Evidently they thought I had stolen the copy of Windows. I had to read a string of numbers, and then enter a string of numbers.

What will drive people away from your company today is you hassling them. Don’t hassle me over a $10 online subscription, because if you do, I will never subscribe to anything again.  Making me call to do something that should be done online is from 1990 and makes your company seem outdated.

It’s not always about the technology

This weekend I was in an Apple Store, which was full of people. Kids were playing with iPads (primarily iPad minis), parents were buying their college students new MacBooks, and some people were just there playing with the technology. The children were taking pictures of each other with the iPads and playing games.

I was also in Staples, and went over to look at two Microsoft Surface tablets on display. There was no one around. I clicked on an Office app, which asked me to sign-up for a SkyDrive account before it would work. I set it down and walked away.

What felt almost offensive to me about the Staples experience is that I know that thousands of people worked on the Surface, which seems to be a great product. Billions of dollars were spent on research, design, and production. Yet at the end, how much thought was given to customer experience?

In a time where people are doing much of their shopping on the internet, the store experience had better be something that is hassle free and adds value, like friendly and experienced staff who are readily available and know what they are talking about. If Saturday were any indication, Microsoft better hope that people are just going to the web and buying the Surface, not stopping in Staples before making a decision.

The real truth about my day

I had the health and strength to get up early this morning, get ready, and drive myself to work. There are millions of people who are struggling with disabilities who find this difficult, or impossible. 

I will spend the day in the luxury and privilege that is middle class America. I have an abundance of fresh food, clean drinking water, and live and work in an air conditioned building. There are literally billions of people who would trade places with me, in a second, with no questions asked. 

Don’t worry, though, I am sure I will be uncomfortable for five or six minutes while my car cools off, or be inconvenienced by some advanced piece of technology that doesn’t work for a few seconds, or be irritated by someone who doesn’t do or say exactly what I want them to. 

By lunch I will have forgotten about paragraphs one and two, and might even post some vague and petty problem on Facebook so people can affirm me.

On JRR Tolkien’s 121st birthday

This excellent quote from Tim Keller on Tolkien:

“Tolkien has helped my imagination. He was a devout Catholic — and I am not. However, because he brought his faith to bear into narrative, fiction, and literature, his Christianity — which was pretty ‘mere Christianity’ (understanding of human sin, need for grace, need for redemption) — fleshed out in fiction, has been an inspiration to me.

What I mean by inspiration is this: he gives me a way of grasping glory that would otherwise be hard for me to appreciate. Glory, weightiness, beauty, excellence, brilliance, virtue — he shows them to you in some of his characters.

When people ask me how often I have read The Lord of the Rings, the answer is, I actually never stop. I’m always in it.”

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.