Series On Reasons Non-Profits Fail:Reason #1: Program Becomes More Important Than People

Have you ever had the experience of sitting in a room with the program, finance or even fundraising people of a non-profit and, after all the chatter died away, realized that there was something missing from the conversation?

The missing thing was a focus on the people or the causes that the non-profit exists to serve.  Nowhere in the long discussion did anyone mention the abused woman, the drug addict, the hungry child, the cancer patient, the disabled person, the endangered species, the environmental disaster or any of the other clients/causes the non-profit exists to serve.

Instead, it was all about the latest processes, criteria, charts, trends, studies, etc. – all good stuff, in the proper place, but all far more dominant than the struggles faced by the people or planet every day.

And what is missing is heart, emotion, empathy, concern – all the content that grabs you and reminds you what it’s all about.

I was in a meeting several months ago in which the moderator droned on for hours about the process of and criteria for helping, rather than the actual helping itself.

It was no wonder, in this environment, that the proposals and offers the MGO’s were cranking out were devoid of any humanity or cause language.  They mimicked the stage that had already been set:  a focus on process, criteria and boring facts and numbers.  It was also no wonder that the MGO’s were not successful in raising money.

And, because of all of this, I began to study this dynamic more.  I realized that, left to its own devices, the natural course of the development of a non-profit is to begin with the people and the cause and then, over time, migrate to a fixation on process.  The result:  people and heart take a back seat.  And the ultimate destination of this journey is irrelevance and failure.

Well, what does all of this have to do with major gift fundraising?  First of all,  process and criteria never raised a dime.  Take a look at the chart below and pretend it describes the process of helping in your organization.   (I just put in the first chart I found to illustrate this point, so don’t try to read this one).

OK, is this chart motivating?  Nope.  Do you think a donor wants to know all about your process, criteria, etc.?  Nope.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love process, charts, numbers, etc.  Really.  I do love all of that stuff.  And there is nothing better than creating efficiency or making sure we are more effective.  Nothing better.

But what I am trying to say here is that we are missing the heart of the matter in much of our internal and external communication.  And instead, we are talking over our employees and donors and then wondering why they are not motivated.

When my business partner and I ran The Domain Group, which became one of the leading direct response agencies serving non-profits in the United States and Europe, I constantly told our staff:

“At least once a week, stop and think about the clients of our clients (the homeless person, the hungry kid, the person with cancer, the forgotten elderly, the condition of our planet, etc.)  Be gripped by the hurt and pain they find themselves in.  Allow your heart to break.  Cry for them.  And then, through your efforts, experience the joy of helping. Don’t ever forget them.”

Here’s why I did this.  I knew that if too much time went by without that reminder, we would think the whole thing was about our creativity, our strategy, our brilliance, etc.  And then we would have migrated into process and the program of creating good advertising.  And we would have lost our hearts.

This is why I feel so strongly that you must be aware of this dynamic and not allow it to creep into your head and life where you work.  Keep the heart and humanity in your language, in your writings, in your thoughts and in your donor communication.  Because if you lose the heart for your cause, you have lost everything.

Mother Teresa said,  “There is a terrible hunger for love. We all experience that in our lives – the pain and loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have right in your own family. Find them. Love them.”

I find that when we are in touch with our own pain and loneliness, then we can properly love those around us and be present, always, with those we serve.  This is far more motivating than discussing a process all day.

Here are four very simple, specific things you can do to counter this trend in your organization and even in your own head:

  1. Every morning, before you get going, think about the people (or causes) your non-profit serves.  Be thankful for them and purpose that today, you will think about their pain and suffering and you will find a way, through your fundraising efforts, to do your part to help them.
  2. Make sure that the people (causes) you serve are present IN every meeting you are in.  Bring them up and talk about them. Tell a story of a problem you heard about or a solution that worked.  Or, simply say, “I just wanted all of us to remember the people (cause) we serve.”
  3. Make sure that the people (causes) you serve are present IN every donor communication, whether verbal or written.  Do not let words go out of your mouth or documents out of your hand without them being present.
  4. At least once a week go find a story about the struggle and/or victory a person (cause) you serve has encountered. And let it break your heart and fill your being with joy.

I promise that if you do these four things you will not slide into complacency, hardness and mediocrity.  Instead, you will stay grounded and centered where you should be – with a soft and caring heart for the people and causes you are committed to serving.

There is no better place to be.  AND, it will help you be successful in your job.



About Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry

Jeff Schreifels and Richard Perry have over 55 years of experience fundraising for non-profits. Richard Perry was co-owner of Domain Group until 2005. Jeff Schreifels was a Senior Strategist for Domain Group for 12 years. They came together a few years ago to start Veritus Group, a full-service major gift fundraising agency. Veritus Group has a unique, data-driven approach unlike any agency focused on major gifts. Jeff and Richard are passionate about their work, passionate about life and hopes this blog will provide you with insights and tangible benefits for you and your work. Thank you for reading!
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5 Responses to Series On Reasons Non-Profits Fail:Reason #1: Program Becomes More Important Than People

  1. If I may suggest a #5: All of the above can be facilitated by making sure the people you serve, your target population is clearly defined (by age-range, geography, behaviors / who your program is designed to serve), and clearly defining, meaningful, measurable goal(s) for this population. This will help you to determine indicators of progress, track progress and learn if your efforts are effective. Regardless of external reporting requirements, we should all be able to answer the question, how do we know our efforts are creating meaningful measurable change in the lives of the people we serve?

  2. Very good input, Kate. Thank you. What Kate is suggesting is a very critical part of non-profit management – measuring and managing to outcomes. As she suggests, we all should be able to KNOW that we are doing the good we intend to do.

  3. Heather says:

    Great post! It’s important to strike a balance between focusing on processes and numbers (the quantitative) versus focusing on stories (the qualitative). What’s frustrating for me is that my organization has a silo mentality, and as a result, those of us in the administration building are never encouraged (or really allowed) to talk to the clients our organization serves or learn their stories. Our clients are still kind of an abstract to me…I sympathize with them on an intellectual level, not from my heart. And I think that having a development professional in that situation does the organization a disservice. However, I’m not a manager, just an associate; any advice on how to get this situation to change? Every once in a while, a client story is thrown my way, but overall the attitude is that I shouldn’t be engaging other departments.

  4. Richard Perry says:

    I think the operative words in your statement above are “never encouraged” (to talk to clients). Might it be an assumption that you are not allowed to? That might be right but it is hard to imagine. So, if I were you I would just go out and talk to clients, getting the permission of the ON SITE manager, stating that you want to understand “how our programs work at the client level and also to get in touch with how our services are affecting client lives”. Now, some manager might object to using “work” time to do that and, if so, shame on them. OK, go at lunch. Fill your soul and spirit. This activity goes well with a sandwich. Let me know how it goes.

    • Heather says:

      That’s a good idea and is similar to what I did at my last job. However, at my current organization, I have to get permission before I even email other departments, so I’m positive I would be disciplined for going and spending time in the client areas without permission from my manager. Perhaps I can convince my manager of the value in this though.

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