The stakes have never been higher for the non-profit community. Dwindling resources, companies which no longer see community investment as a priority (nor do their shareholders) and a few gallant non-profits trying to fulfill the needs of people still suffering from the aftermath of the one of the worst recessions this country has ever seen. With that daunting task awaiting them each morning, why do we still treat non-profit leadership like a part-time missionary?
You know the missionary story. A kid or young adult comes to you with his or her hand out for a short-term financial boost to give them what they need to make it through their short-term project, either here in the U.S. or abroad. They raise JUST enough money to go on the trip, eat lots of beans and soup to make ends meet and then it’s over. They probably helped some folks along the way, but mostly added to their own understanding of the world – and then they left the problems they attacked behind them. Unfortunately we give to our non-profit leaders the same way.
For one, we think every crisis is short term. Throw some money at it and it will go away. It doesn’t. Most of these efforts, whether it be raising money for cancer, feeding the hungry or putting a new roof over someone’s head, are long term problems that will never go away. Secondly, we put these ridiculous metrics on non-profit performance based on what percentage of the organization revenue goes to overhead (administration, building, marketing, advertising, etc.) vs. spending on the actual cause and clients. It’s a ridiculous formula, but people flock to online sites like Charity Navigator to make sure the organization they support spends only one cent of every dollar on administration. This is absurd thinking in a time where we need the best people with the best possible tools going out and a) sharing their message in a compelling way and b) having the resources to promote their message to the masses. And yes, sometimes this is expensive. Ever hear the old adage that “you have to spend money to make money?” This is an accepted form for commerce and business for every type of organization except non-profits.
What good is a non-profit that does tremendous work, but isn’t given a budget to spread their message through media and public relations? What good is a non-profit which can’t keep their leadership in tow because they can’t feed their own families on what they’re being paid, never mind come up with solutions to feed others? The answer – no good at all.
It’s time to change our thinking. It’s time to pay non-profit leaders for what they’re accomplishing. There’s no incentive to do better when they realize the antiquated metrics that are used to guide the organization’s success actually discourage them from doing more. Non-profit development staff are also given no incentive to raise more money. They raise $5 or $5 million and they get to keep their same pay level, with the assumption the person who raised $5 will lose their job eventually or the non-profit will go under altogether.
So who’s at fault here? I have to say, as much as I’d like to lay blame on the national obsession with pie metrics, some of the blame goes to the non-profit boards themselves. So many of them are short sighted and shoot down raises and they won’t pay qualified business people to run their organizations and instead recycle failed leaders from other non profits. They also engage an ever present “no” stamp which is thrust upon any expenditures that would increase the marketing or advertising budget or any idea deemed to be “outside the box.” The irony here is that though they manage non-profit budgets like it’s their own money, many never even write checks themselves. There’s been a backlash recently regarding this. I know one very large national agency which is assessing the board “give” each year and determining whether their spot will be renewed based on that number. I have a friend who runs a very large rescue mission in the Southeast with a multi-million dollar budget who became so frustrated by his board’s inability to change or try new things that he re-wrote the by-laws giving his decisions complete autonomy. While these are drastic moves, it shows the virtual frustration some non-profit leadership are experiencing by not getting needed support from the board.
In the end, non-profits will need to begin spending even more money to survive in a crowded marketplace with a shrinking donation base. The first priority is to pay executive leadership what they deserve. The second is to allow them to spend money to get their message out. I’ve already forgotten about the short time missionaries I supported. I will always remember the folks who work day in and day out to achieve a goal that most of us just assume is or has been handled.