Are people too nice in the nonprofit sector?

That’s the question in Caroline Preston’s article at The Chronicle of Philanthropy Some Nonprofit Leaders Ask: Is Philanthropy Killing Itself with Kindness?

The answer in over 1,500 words: check out Ms. Preston’s article.

The answer in six words: Do you really need to ask?

The answer in one word: Yes

A one paragraph explanation from the article:

“The culture of overweening politeness in American philanthropy is leading to our ruin,” says Mr. Ruesga, president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. “It keeps me from telling you, in the clearest possible terms, that your five-year, $2-million initiative to end homelessness is well-intentioned magical thinking at best and boneheaded ignorance at worst.”

The pressure to raise enough funds to keep operating pushes NPOs to accept demands and expectations of donors. Consequences of offending rating agencies restrain evaluation of their methodology. Fear of pushback or other negative reaction holds back comments that some organizations are out of line, ineffective, duplicative, inefficient, or making the rest of the community look bad.

In the evangelical world, how do you say anything other than “you’re the most wonderfulest, bestest ministry in the whole world” if the reply will be “God told me to do it this way and by the way who are you to challenge God and tell Him that He’s wrong?”

How does one respond to that? Who is so bold as to risk that pushback?

So, my answer to the article’s implied question is yes, the nonprofit world is too nice.

And that is unfortunate.

If you have been around the nonprofit world for a while, I’m sure you can think some organizations that are out of line or ineffective or duplicative or inefficient or make the rest of the community look bad or some combination thereof.

There are organizations who should really think about merging with a larger organization.

Some organizations are far along into the decline stage of their life cycle. It is unfortunate that there is no way to gently and tactfully advise such organizations that unless they can regain relevance and impact they ought to consider passing the baton to another organization.

Here is a question that gets to the core of openness:

Who can say “no” to the CEO and make it stick?

That is one of the questions I frequently ask in an audit. It gets to the core of accountability.

That question has been in my audit toolkit for probably five years or so.

In your organization, could these conversations take place with your CEO?

  • No, you can’t start that new program.
  • No, you can’t spend money on this particular thing.
  • No, you made a mistake in dealing with that person on that issue and you need to make amends.

Many people could make those comments. The core of the question is who can make it stick.

I cannot characterize any of the replies I have received on my current audit clients without the risk of violating confidentiality restrictions.

As I think of clients I audited 10 or 15 years ago before using that question, I can think of some organizations where the answer to that question would have been no one. And that’s scary.

Over the last year or two I have read published reports of organizations I have no other involvement with.  When reading some of those news articles, I wonder what their response would be to that question. I fear that for many of those organizations in the media spotlight the answer might also be no one. Nobody that can tell the CEO he’s on the wrong course. No one can tell the board of directors they are missing the boat. I speak in generalities obviously, because that’s only way I can address such a topic.

Listening to others’ voices

Since starting this blogging thing, the range of voices I read has expanded tremendously. Many of those voices are calling for the nonprofit world to recognize the unintended consequences they create. Many other voices are calling on nonprofits to improve their effectiveness. The push for outcome measures is part of this effort.

On this teeny tiny little ol’ blog I’ve been calling on the evangelical corner of the religious portion of the nonprofit community to revise accounting for donated pharmaceuticals before the regulators do it for us. My concern is if we collectively don’t make changes, others will force change on us.

Don’t know if my voice has been heard, but I’ll keep trying.

Listening to voices of people trying to improve the nonprofit community is difficult, especially when you sincerely believe you on the path God wishes you to be on. Difficult and painful though it may be, we need to listen to those voices.

A good dose of humility might help hear voices of others. Might also help hear God’s voice even better.

And perhaps all of us need to figure out a way to speak a bit more honestly.

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