Reasons Non-Profits Fail, Reason #5: A Focus On Power & Control vs. Effectiveness & Opportunity

Jeff and I have a strong conviction that when one is working in a non-profit there are two parties actually being served:

  1. The clients or cause the non-profit is organized to address, and
  2. The donor who supports them.

In one of his posts, Jeff had the audacity to suggest that half of the non-profit’s effort should be directed to the donors, not just the tiny little crumbs we throw their way now in exchange for their money.

I’ve been thinking about this, especially in light of the organizational dynamics of a non-profit, and am beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t really add a third party to this mix: SELF.  That is, the people who actually work in the non-profit.

This thought springs from observing the management and leadership dynamics in non-profits and noting that, while many are right on track, there are also way too many whose leaders, managers and employees have veered down a track of power and control vs. effectiveness, service and opportunity.

What does this kind of environment look like?

  • People who are more concerned about their standing than they are about getting meaningful work accomplished.
  • Authority figures who value their time more than the time of others.
  • An absolute ban on critical thinking.
  • Substantially different perks for those of higher value.
  • An obsession with “real estate”, i.e. what is mine in terms of job or influence.
  • A lack of interest in talking about impact,  effectiveness or new opportunities.
  • Intolerance of different work styles and approaches.
  • An orientation toward control and hierarchy vs. participation.

And the list could go on for a long time.  In essence, in these kinds of places, there is a high orientation toward self vs. others.  This is so amazing to me because the very essence of a non-profit is to serve others – or at least it should be.

Leo Tolstoy sums up this situation very succinctly:

“Everybody thinks of changing humanity,

but nobody thinks of changing himself.”

So, we can expend a great deal of energy and image making by projecting to our world how we are going to change humanity.  But we are unwilling, in the process, to look at ourselves and consider what we should change as well.

And this kind of thinking creeps into the major gift arena in how we treat donors.  They become merely I.D. numbers and sources of cash vs. the beautiful, living human beings they are who have given their hearts and resources to our care to do something meaningful in our world.

If you are in an organization where there is a focus on Power & Control vs. Effectiveness & Opportunity then, if you don’t watch it, you will let the spirit of the place affect how you interact with your donors.  And that could look something like this:

  • You are more worried about what a donor and his performance can do for you than what they can accomplish through their giving.
  • You will value your time more than theirs.
  • You will find it difficult to listen to their take on how your organization thinks and acts, missing important feedback.
  • You will find yourself impatient with a style or approach that is different from yours.
  • You will want to control how they respond and react rather than allow them to fully participate.

Notice how this behavior is all about you?  That’s the problem.  Now, you may not mean to be doing things this way.  But the pressure of the work, the need to perform and the spirit of the place may have taken you off track.

And that is why we are writing about why non-profits fail.  Awareness of these issues will help you become alert to trends and sliding values so you can begin to counter them in your work with your good donors.

What we DO want in our non-profits and in our relationship to donors is to become focused on effectiveness and opportunity.   This does not mean we abandon the plans and management that are in place.  What it means is:

  • Finding information on how our programs are working in changing lives and the planet – then sharing that information and joy with your donors.
  • Spending all the time a donor needs to fill their hearts and minds with information on the programs they are giving to.
  • Worrying about the welfare of the donor vs. our own.
  • Seeking answers to questions donors have, even if those answers may be uncomfortable or get into areas you would prefer not to talk about – in other words, being open and authentic with your donors.
  • Processing ideas they may have on how to be more effective – or looking at opportunities for service in your sector.

And there are many more ways to let the donors into your world and to treat them with honor and respect – the same honor and respect you expect to have in your own relationships.

If you are in a place where power and control is valued more than effectiveness and opportunity,  you may have to find your way out if things don’t change.  And if you find yourself in that place, remember, it’s not the donors’ fault that things are off point.  They are doing the best they can, with good hearts and good intentions.

So, commit yourself, today and every day, to care for them in a very special way.



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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