Keeping Nonprofits on Their Toes: The Mythical Lesson

I’ve been reading on social enterprise/ hybrid models recently and a common theme I’ve seen weaved throughout is this belief that new models are necessary, if for no other reason than,  to “shake up” the nonprofit community, “keep them on their toes” and give ’em a “run for the money”.

And this kinda upsets me.


I Get It….

…after having worked with an increasing number of organizations over the last year and a half. To many there appears to be an increasing number of nonprofit heads that don’t do adequate audits, don’t implement effective policies, don’t thoroughly address governance and accountability or aren’t trying to generate a sustaining, growing business model. But I wholeheartedly believe that alot of this can be attributed to the fact that many simply don’t know any better and a concerted effort is not being made to educate them.


For Example…

…in Texas you give the State 25 dollars, turn in a sheet of paper and boom you’re a nonprofit. There’s no incubation, trial period, mandatory education, follow-up…nothin. And the amount of guidance or education organizations receive subsequent to creation is next to none. Between the low barrier of entry and lack of education it’s ENTIRELY too easy for people to start ill-advised or unsustainable organizations. They are essentially set up for failure.

In fact, research ongoing educational opportunities for nonprofits both in the city of Houston and the state of Texas.

The results are depressing.

Sure, you have your  staple organizations, the United Ways, Dallas Center for Nonprofit Management, Appleseed, Greenlights, TANO, Texas Nonprofits, TALA, FPA, local grant-makers or industry specific organizations. I’ve seen the programming start to increase with programs like ESCH.   Schools such as Rice, UT and SMU have strong backgrounds in nonprofit education and training as well.  And there  are national organizations/websites such as IdeaEncore, LawforChange, BoardSource, the Foundation Center, NASCO and the National Council for Nonprofits which are great go-to’s.

But when I think about how big Texas is, and factor in the number of nonprofits that are created here each year, I can’t help but be disappointed by the lack of LOCAL educational opportunities provided specifically for them. Even more disappointing is the refusal of so many organizations with the resources, and/or audience, to support local nonprofits and the economic/cultural contributions they make. Or to even RECOGNIZE these contributions.


And of Those Opportunities That Exist Here…

…many are outdated, fluffy or ill-fitting.

I’ll never forget the time I attended a program, offered by a major local institution, on the creation and operation of a nonprofit.  Attendees were advised to implement policies and procedures that I know would take a staff of ten to implement, told to recruit attorneys from some of the biggest firms in the country for their board and given a litany of problems these would- be organizations would encounter with little to no solutions.

I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to say this program was probably one of THE most depressing things I’ve had to sit through.

Most attendees left dejected, feeling as if they’d wasted their time. And throughout the entire thing I couldn’t help thinking “How is this going to help Ms. Betty Bo who’s cashed in her tiny 401K to start a 501(c)(3) helping seniors? HOW exactly is she going to implement a human resources program when it’s her, her niece and son trying run the organization with no nonprofit background? And how many big firm partners will actually want to be on a working board stapling packets and baking cookies with her?”


Please Understand…

…my problem isn’t  that people were being warned or even “scared” a bit. My problem was that the method in which they were being “guided” was pointless. If I run about telling organizations they  have to have X number of policies, requiring X number of resources and using X gigantic process, knowing fully well that they’re in a start-up stage with zilch resources, they are  going to ignore me.

Rather than trying to cleverly scare ill-planned organizations, if something is absolutely integral for a successful nonprofit then why not be honest! If organizations generally fail by not implementing X, Y and Z then why not tell them that that? Why beat around the bush?


At the End of the Day…

…nonprofits will increasingly run more effectively and efficiently once we understand when and when not to treat them the same as for-profits. With regard to enforcement, I believe treatment should be even-keeled.  Some argue that many nonprofit ED’s  don’t have the business acumen of for-profit businesses leaders to be held to such high standards…sorry but this isn’t an excuse. And they will never have reason to continue gaining more knowledge or acumen unless held accountable. Doing this isn’t what’s unfair.  Unfair is penalizing organizations for not running as effectively as other entities without providing the same resources and support.

Offering a class that is CLEARLY created with a corporate ideology in mind, sticking in a nonprofit chapter or two and dismissing the rest as “translatable” isn’t enough. Simply throwing an ED on a committee or two for the sake of “input” isn’t enough either.

Here in Houston we’re dropping the ball on this.

We as a society have to start giving nonprofit’s a stronger presence, recognize the distinctive differences there are between the nonprofit and for-profit world and give nonprofits the same support given to small business development if not more.

So I believe this “lesson” is a myth. Nonprofit ED’s don’t run around bragging about the audits they’ve failed to do or crappy policies they’ve enacted. People generally do WANT to do better.  But even if there was a lesson or two to be taught if we are all aren’t better about this then the “lesson” everyone is trying to teach will cease to be educational and increasingly become unsubstantiated  punishment.

Other Posts You Might Like

Help or Hype: With All These New Concepts Are We Just Being Duped?

Great Resources and Articles for Non-profit Organizations

“I’m Incorporated, Now I Need To Be  Tax Exempt….Right?”

What We Can’t See Can Hurt You