Friday, November 30, 2007

5 Problems I Have with the Non-Profit Industry

Every 'how to blog' post recommends writing lists with titles like the one I gave this post. It's supposed to bring in traffic--and it does work. Does that mean I should only talk about what can be said in a list? Or that I should spend hours reworking a topic into a list? Do you feel I've tricked you with this title if I don't follow through with a list? That's the point. It's a formula. It works. But that doesn't make it good.

Something is bothering me about this whole non-profit industry. I read a lot of blogs about non-profits and we belong to an association or two. The bloggers promote books, schools and software about the best formulas for fund raising, PR and marketing. I get 3 or 4 emails a day inviting me to a local seminar on the secrets of grant writing or how to use social networking. More formulas.

Yesterday, I got a friendly note from a local non-profit. When I went to their website, the list of staff seemed huge for what they do and how old they are. And then there's the Red Cross. These well-respected non-profits follow the formulas and get the funding.

Is anybody doing the work? How many on the staff of the typical non-profit ever spend time with the people the non-profit is supposed to be serving? And what about those who want to do something really world-changing but aren't very literate or can't afford a seminar? If they can't pay someone to write a snappy grant proposal, do they get funded? All the guidelines for fund raising say philanthropists want to see a proven track record, good governance, measurable objectives. That means a lot of new ideas don't get considered. Sure, there's fiscal sponsorship. But we just discovered that concept two weeks ago. How is someone without many resources but with a passion to serve supposed negotiate the maze?

It seems to me that a lot of good is not getting done because non-profits have become big business. Valuable money and other resources are going to support the bloat rather than the mission--no matter what the published ratios say. When there is debate concerning several organizations who are rating the charities, something is wrong.

To help us with Scrollworks, we have purchased some books like "Fund Raising for Dummies". I tried to follow their steps, but it just seems wrong. So many of the requirements go against my gut instincts of what we should be doing. It's great to have a plan, but it isn't great to spend three years coming up with the plan--and the bureaucracy that supports it. It seems better for our project to sketch out a plan and then be ready to adjust instantly to what we encounter in real life.

Perhaps that means we will struggle for funds. So be it. Are there any donors out there willing to risk their money on an experiment? I don't know. I think the potential benefit makes the risk worthwhile. We need about $85,000 for the first semester of Scrollworks. I'm donating my IRA to get us started. That should be about $35,000. Hopefully some others will understand what we are trying to do and chip in.

And I am going to be thinking about the big business of non-profits. Maybe we need the charity equivalent of the Grameen Bank--some place where people can easily and quickly get funding to try a new idea. After all, it's like what Nick says about the orchestras: it's a numbers game. We need to start 300 students to get 30 into orchestra. We need to try 300 ideas to get 30 that change the world.


btc said...

Great comments Jeane. I would like to you to elaborate on your "gut instincts of what we should be doing". What exactly do your gut instincts tell you? Thanks.

Jeane Goforth said...

My gut instincts tell me that we need to act--to get in there and get started teaching and see what happens. I think we can spend an infinite amount of time planning and it will be pointless. I think it would be a mistake to change Scrollworks to fit an outline that is in a book or to suit the blank spaces on a grant application. New ideas, the ones that generate real change, are unexpected, surprising, don't look like anything that came before, can't answer the usual questions.
We want an organization that will be infinitely flexible and adaptable: an ever-changing fractal. As I read today in "Finite and Infinite Games" by James Carse:
"Only that which can change can continue..."
Scrollworks definitely will be an 'infinite game'.
That's what my gut tells me.