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Non-profit Pitfalls: A view from the inside

The private sector looks at the nonprofit sector as its rebellious younger sister. The look that says “What are you doing? When are you going to figure it out. You have so much potential if you could only get your act together.” In recent years with the growth and boom of social enterprise companies the non profit organization comes across as dated and out of touch. One may argue that non profit organizations are on the verge of being obsolete. I do not believe that non profit organizations are obsolete. The purpose of nonprofit organizations is to fill in the societal gaps left by government and the private sector. As someone who has worked for non profit organizations for most of my adult life I can only imagine what my communities would look like without museums, after school programs, community mental health clinics or free legal advocacy programs. After all these years in non profit work I have one burning question. Why the hell are non profit organizations so messy? I have a few ideas/theories that may answer this question.

Lost in history- The old saying is those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Just because an organization has been around for 100 years does not mean you need to operate as if it is 100 years ago. I have worked for many places that rest of their history as being first in the fight or dating back to the 1800s. So what? Populations and causes change but many organizations do not seem to want to change with them. What worked in 1969 may not work in 2018.

Poor infrastructure- Most organizations were started in a time of crisis. Staffed by volunteers and people who wanted to make a situation better. Lots of heart but not necessarily a lot of skill. But what happens when the crisis has tempered or subsided? Nothing changes. No one develops any policy or procedures or thinks about how to sustain funding or hiring practices. And when structures are put in place they are usually so top heavy and dysfunctional that you have too “directors”. No one has any idea what the hell is going on and how to make the best of existing resources.

Open door policy- Before everyone and my mother was talking about inclusion many non profit organization had taken this practice to a whole new level. Just because people want to be helpful does not mean they should be given a job. And can we stop hiring people who have corporate experience with no useful skills with the client population. Working at Kaiser does not mean you can run a residential program. Non profits also need to stop with the loyalty promotions. I worked for a guy in NYC who was a used car salesman. Everything I spoke with him I felt the need to shower. The guy was a real sleazeball. He started out in the organization as a volunteer who because staff and a director and then a managing director with a wack as BA degree. I am all for people getting their come up if they earn it. People seeking help should be helped by people who know what the hell they are doing. I am not going to a mechanic who likes cars and wants to help but does not know the difference between a screwdriver and a wrench. The same rationale should be applied to case managers, counselors and legal advocates.

Identity crisis- Are you a mom and pop or a corporation? Are you a press conference or a conversation? I know that everybody steals from everybody. But you can always tell the copy from the original. Non profit organizations copy the corporate structure with no idea what those roles and positions are supposed to do for an organization. Every organization needs marketing that fits your place in the market and lets people know about your organization with respect to mission, vision, and values. Not in the nonprofit world. And the organizations that do spend the time and too much money on the brand do horrible work and treat their staff like shit. I am speaking from personal experience.

I am sure there are many other reasons why non profit organizations fail to get it together and I am sure there is some magic that keeps many of them in business even when they should not be in operation. I enjoy being in the fight for equality and being an agent of change. However that it hard to do when you do not have the right people in the right roles with the right structure to ensure some level of sustainability and hope for forward movement.

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