What's All This, Then?

Maybe you'd like to know a little about Lean Nonprofit and what we're doing here. Perhaps you'd like a little insight into who I am and what I'm all about with this Lean Nonprofit mumbo-jumbo.

Or maybe you're awake at 2:30 in the morning and are looking for something to put you back to sleep.

I'm sure I can help with all of the above.

Here's the deal: I think nonprofits are awesome. I think the world is a better place, the country is a better place, your neighborhood and YOU are all better because nonprofits exist. In fact, I have devoted most of my adult life to nonprofit service, educating myself and getting lots and lots of experience in this realm. This is a big deal to me, and to many, many other people. 

But there are some problems. Eventually, with a little time and a lot of writing, I'll flesh a bunch of these out a bit more...for the moment, though, just chew on these bullet points to get a sense of where this magnificent manifesto is coming from: 

  • Nonprofits are considered the "Other Sector" after Business (the gods of our universe!) and Government (the begrudging funders and controllers of...virtually everything). I think the "Other Sector" concept is lame and gross. How could it be that the only sector purely devoted to making the world, neighborhoods and people better off are the last thing we consider valuable in our economy and society? That's messed up!

  • Nonprofits are fully dependent on the whims of individuals, foundations, corporations and governments who fund them. This is extra tricky when you think about where the money comes from...why do corporations give? Some of them give because they truly care and are great people and have wonderful social compassion...buuuuut, that's just some of them. (See, I don't work for a nonprofit doing fundraising anymore, and when I do, I'm just a consultant and you don't have to vouch for me, so I can say this now)...here's a troubling example: Look at how weird it is that banks, for instance, who virtually single-handedly caused (and continue to perpetuate) the foreclosure crisis of 2008-present, are the ones who fund foreclosure intervention programs. It's like paying someone off to clean up the mess they're making. The same thing happens when polluters donate to environmental causes. It just makes things tricky. I'm not saying corporate money is dirty, I'm just pointing out that it's complicated and that dependence on external giving and philanthropy can only carry you so far before you start eating into your mission by being complicit with bad activities because you can't bite the hands that throw you their crumbs! Hey, I'm just being honest.

  • GRANTS! oy, grants. First off, let me tell you I've been faithfully writing grants for about seven years, had a lot of success with that, and I love doing it. However! grants are troublesome. They are rarely provided for operating expenses, are typically provided for something NEW! IMPROVED! SEXIER! and yet, nonprofits need them to operate. Add to this the fact that many nonprofits lack capacity to provide adequate grant oversight and management, conduct proper program evaluation and reporting, and need to keep going back year after year to the same funders (or keep digging up new ones!) and you have yourself a multi-gazillion dollar a year industry. In a world where philanthropic givers, even foundations, require "sustainability" and disallow every speck of overhead (why should nonprofits have to pay people to do the work??? isn't this the Other Sector?) nonprofit leaders and practitioners have to get more strategic and creative with how and when they use grants. Venture capital for nonprofits is how I see it. Seed money for something that can sustain itself.

  • On that note, nonprofit leaders and practitioners today generally lack business acumen (ouch! I know, it hurts, but it's true). That is to say, many people who work for nonprofits have made a career out of it (myself, to a great degree, included). On the other hand, when people are ready to leave the rat-race of that nasty old for-profit business world, they work for a nice, simple, easy-going nonprofit and they don't worry so much about their business experience, thinking it now less useful or somehow distasteful. The truth is, that merging business and nonprofit management skills is essential for the success and survival of just about every nonprofit out there today...but we're a little slow to do it, and boy, is it hard to teach people how to think about nonprofit revenue. Nonprofit isn't a literal term, by the way. It means the primary reason for doing business is NOT to turn a profit, but it doesn't mean that no revenue should ever be generated by a nonprofit line of business. The equation does not require that mission be sacrificed for revenue OR vice versa.

  • And, back to that little thing about nonprofit pay...I was fortunate to work for a nonprofit organization that focused on community economic development and asset building. By way of meeting their mission, they paid a decent salary and worked hard to make sure their pay was commensurate or better than the industry comps. I recognize I was lucky to be in that situation! The aforementioned dependence on external funders and our lack of business acumen in the nonprofit sector seemingly make it OK to treat employees rather poorly. Maybe it's low pay. Maybe it's limited or no benefits. Maybe it's running them ragged and contributing to total burnout (remember how grants need to always be something NEW! IMPROVED! SEXIER!? That is a vicious cycle that piles on to people forever and ever until they are crushed by the burden of the insidious "do more with less' and they burn out or move on). Nonprofits face a lot of turnover, or perhaps worse - sometimes people who work in nonprofits get so run down they don't think it's worth trying to move on to another phase in their lives, so they stay and take the organization down with them...bad news bears.

  • There are a lot of ideas and thoughts and thinkers and theorizers and pontificators in the nonprofit realm. However, there is a lack of helpful, applicable, hands on research and tools to help practitioners figure out how to do their jobs. When you're in the nonprofit world, sometimes you just have to jump in, sink or swim, and figure it out as you go. This makes for a wild ride, but also a lot of wasted time and effort. For instance: look up "program development" on your favorite search engine (I'll pretend it's not Google for a second). What do you find? Pretty much all academic stuff and nothing you can take and use right now to get your job done. So you learn by doing it, and you learn by doing it wrong and taking forever to figure out it could have been done better.

OK. Phew. Are you depressed yet (or asleep)? That's alright, it gets better! 

All of these problems can be addressed and, even better, the eternal optimist in me thinks they can be solved. A lot of them will take a ton of concerted effort on the part of nonprofit practitioners and leaders. But many of them can be resolved relatively quickly - organization by organization - with some rolled up sleeves, hard work, and focus on how to become a stronger, more sustainable, more independent sector. 

All this is why I started Lean Nonprofit, LLC. This consulting, education, training, planning, implementation support firm is designed to help nonprofits get what they need NOW to make their business work. Nonprofits ARE businesses too. Businesses that exist to make the world a better place, to help people, to create something better than what exists today...but businesses nonetheless. Philanthropy, tax exemption, donor relationships - all have their place. But in the execution of nonprofit plans and strategy, we have a lot of work to do. I think my experience figuring things out as I went, learning from failures (and learning to fail faster!), fearlessly trying new things and seeing great results, and understanding the key to not just landing a grant but maximizing its value to the organization - all of this lends itself to helping the sector I love and adore make even more of a difference in the world. 

As you explore this site (and as I continue to build it), I hope you will find tools you can use today, templates you can deploy, professional development opportunities, and consulting to provide your organization with the right information, tools and processes to be as successful at meeting your mission as possible. Here's to the Other Sector!