Are You a Nonprofit Leader Who’s Letting the Tail Wag the Dog?

Jul 15, 2014

If you’re a nonprofit leader who sometimes feels like the tail is wagging the dog, this post is for you.

At the heart of everything I do, I am first and foremost, the mother of a child with special needs. Even though our son Michael is no longer with us, I still get calls from parents who struggle with nonprofit leaders who are so busy working the business they sometimes forget why they exist in the first place.

Times have definitely changed, and in my many years of working with nonprofits, I’ve come to realize that such leaders can enhance their capacity to fulfill the mission by exploring three specific questions:

1. What’s Your Operational Focus?

Is your operational focus task-related or people-related?

This might sound like an odd question, but nonprofit leaders who run large organizations often get so caught up on what it takes to keep the machine running, they forget they are in the business of serving people.

The result of this type of operational focus is that the organization becomes more and more efficient but less and less effective. And, make no mistake about it. This focus stems directly from how task-oriented or relational the leader is.

For example, in the disability arena, I find nonprofit leaders who are doing all the right things to protect themselves from legal ramifications. However, somewhere in the midst of implementing policies and procedures, they foster staff who are more worried about meeting requirements than they are about quality of life for the people they serve.

If your operational focus emphasizes tasks over relationships, you’re probably one of those leaders. Here’s an additional question you may want to consider:

Are we, as a nonprofit, living out our mission of serving people in the way we originally intended?

In the disability arena, this would mean that the people being served have a better quality of life. They are integrated into the community; they have choices. And, they have direct care staff who are creatively addressing their needs not just executing the necessary tasks related to daily care.

Remember that all your policies, procedures, and systems are there to serve a humanitarian need. “People First”should be your underlying mantra.

When your staff comes to appreciate a more relational environment, they will be less fearful and more empowered to respond to the needs of your clients and your cause.

2. Has Your Constituency Changed?

What are your current demographics?

Most leaders can quite readily answer this question. However, if you’re a nonprofit executive, I would caution you to think through this question long and hard.

I have found that many high-level leaders have been involved with their organization in one form or another for perhaps several decades. They often fail to note that the demographics of their constituency has dramatically changed over time.

In the disability arena, for example, a new generation of parents has risen up over the past twenty-five years. They are more informed. They have been advocates across multiple complex systems. They have goals and dreams for their children that were never before imagined by past generations, and, in many instances, their children are living out those dreams.

These savvy parents have higher expectations for their loved ones, and because their children are living longer and have had more life experiences, they, too, expect more choices and opportunities for themselves.

Bottom line: nonprofit leaders sometimes fail to recognize that they are serving a completely different population. Such leaders are married to policies and procedures that exclude key stakeholders from the process.

If you’re one of those leaders who hasn’t paid close enough attention to the changes in your constituency, here are two additional questions you may want to consider:

  1. How have the people we serve changed since we started the organization?
  2. What can we do to more effectively meet their current needs?

Note that I once again stress the word “effectively”over efficiently. You’re probably already efficient or you wouldn’t still be in business. However, I challenge you to think of the endless possibilities that could surface if you consider these simple questions.

Times change. People change. While your vision and focus may remain the same, as a nonprofit leader, you never want to miss an opportunity to collaborate more effectively with the people you serve. Collaboration, however, requires going beyond why people need your services in the first place. I encourage you to take the time to learn what people are experiencing and how they feel.

What are the gaps in your system? Where and how can your current constituency contribute to your overall organizational goals?

3. What’s Your Share of the Market?

If you’re a nonprofit leader living in the past, you’re probably still thinking that people should contribute their resources to your cause because, well, after all, it’s a worthy cause, right?

One of the worst mistakes a nonprofit leader can make is to create a culture of entitlement. Entitlement causes leaders to become more and more focused on task orientation, the bottom-line, and just getting the job done.

In this type of organizational climate, the tail is definitely wagging the dog, and the nonprofit leader and the team burn out because they’ve lost the passion and purpose of the cause.

Remember that we no longer live in a society with two or three humanitarian causes. Today, there are literally thousands of nonprofits many of which are within your own community. Even the most generous are finding themselves overwhelmed by what efforts they should support. As a nonprofit leader, you can no longer hope that governmental funding, galas, or grants will sustain your organization.

What you need are philanthropic generous givers who are committed to your effort. When you have an operational focus that is relational and when you embody the wants and needs of your constituency, the money will flow. You will gain a greater share of the market.

People have a lot of choices about what organizations to support. It’s your job to make sure that you’re their first choice.

So, here’s the final question:

As a nonprofit organization, what are we doing to foster relationships among the people we serve (and their families), the community, and even our competitors such that we generate a climate of philanthropic generosity and gain a greater share of the market?

I challenge you, as a nonprofit leader, to delve into these three areas as I’ve outlined them above. Pull together your team and have the hard conversation—not about what you’re currently doing, but what you could be doing to take your organization to the next level.

Your work is simply too important to settle for what used to be good enough. For many of you, people’s lives are at stake. The community wants to take care of its own, but they have to know whom you serve and why it’s important. They have to know that it matters. They have to know what sets you apart from a corporate entity only interested in a bottom-line. They have to know that lives are being changed.

Question:  If you’re a nonprofit leader, what best practices set you apart from other organizations?