TO DO or NOT TO DO: Challenges in the Not for Profit Sector
The not for profit sector faces several, most important questions that can create challenges-similar to driving on a highway not for profit leaders and staff are faced with multiple challenges. The most basic is: To do or not to do. I suggest the following to get to the answer. Ask yourself:
- What is the problem? What change are we trying to make? Who are we trying to support?
- Who cares about the problem and will fund it?
But, in my experience there are also a few other critical, important questions that hardly ever get asked in efforts to just do:
- Who else is trying to address this and how are they doing it? Have they succeeded? If so, what can we learn?
- Will this initiative yield long-term results?
I have worked in the not for profit sector over three decades and hands down my greatest frustration has been the duplication of efforts followed by limited resources to do anything excellently that has long-lasting, institutionalized impact. There are multiple organizations doing similar programs thinking theirs is unique and that their latest effort is a ‘new idea’. And, it is even more frustrating when the supposedly ‘new idea’ is driven by a funder since very few not for profit leader/staff will tell a funder they are wrong in fear they will damage the relationship.
I met with a funder that wants to start a ‘new initiative’ focused on women in leadership. My first question, which as a not-for profit industry expert, I always ask someone with a great new idea: Have you done research on the work done in this area? The answer--not surprising: Well, no it didn’t even occur to me to do that, because what we are going to do is very different. Then the person went on to tell why it was so different.
Perhaps I should have kept quiet, but I have worked on these issues for decades and do not believe we should waste energy, time and resources in duplication. As a seasoned executive and senior advisor, my passion is in innovation that is real and produces sustained change that leads to long-term success for the constituents engaged; unless we are truly exploring an issue engaging those at the forefront and impacted constituencies to ensure true movement forward on a particular problem.
That said, my response was something like: well what you describe is not so very different then initiatives I saw on line when I researched the topic for this meeting. I went on to list some of the initiatives I found and others I had first hand experience with developing.
I went on to tell the person, how I would want to contribute to her efforts if the initiative envisioned was structured to add value to the existing body of work on the topic area and if we could learn how to take it beyond initiative into sustained institutional change so that five years from now we could feel proud of making a significant dent on the problem. Many of these new ideas just band aid societal problems as they end before they prove their worth and/or when funding is gone. Needless to say I did not get the contract which is the best result since am not good at wasting energy pleasing short-term funder satisfaction.
That said: My advice to not for profit leaders and philanthropists alike is simple:
Every time you identify a problem and come up with a great ‘new solution’ take time to:
- Research the existing body of work.
- Engage in dialogue with the constituency which will be most impacted so they are part of seeking the solution.
- Don’t try to be the hero, but rather be a great collaborator.
- Honor the work already in place, sharing the stage with those who came before you.
The result will make you proud!