Does Your Nonprofit Major in Minor?

November 30, 2009

Most people fail in life because they major in minor things.
Anthony Robbins

I’ve been a member of the CharityChannel listserv community now for probably nine years. It’s been an amazing resource for me throughout my career – and also a barometer for the mindset challenges that tend to drag nonprofit organizations down.

Recently I read the following post:

“The non-profit I’m interning for (name omitted) assists the homeless with job skills
and matching the person with a business and mentor within the
company.The name of  the program is XYZ. Any
suggestions on how to go about creating a logo (no money to hire
someone to do it), would be appreciated. the only background I have
with logo creation in higher education.I recall that very few ideas
were liked by any number of people and coming up with an original idea
was tough to do.”

As it has in the past when I’ve read similar posts, my jaw literally dropped.

In addition to my consulting business, I am an Internet marketer. Right now I’m in the process of developing a new program and, as a matter of fact, I am looking for a new logo for that program. As a divorced mother of two daughters – one approaching college age and the other in college – most of my funds are tied up, leaving little for marketing expenses. So I turned to craigslist. Within minutes of posting an ad, my inbox was flooded with replies from highly qualified graphic designers. I could just as well have utilized the services of Sitepoint or 99 Designs.

The ease of which one can find immensely qualified virtual help at the click of a mouse, however, is not the point of this post.

Clearly the organization posting the question has bigger problems than scraping up the $50, $75 or even $150 for a decent logo (and, heck, I know individuals who earn six figure incomes who possess neither a logo or business cards so my first question would be “why all the time and energy spent on the logo issue in the first place?”).

The problem lies in the mindset of this organization and thousands others like it.

That mindset that one sees so often in nonprofit organizations of wanting everything for free. That mindset of being utterly committed to their organization’s mission – but not at all committed to the basics of funding their organization’s mission (remember an earlier post where I reprinted verbatim a local job listing for a nonprofit development director with a pay rate of $12 an hour?).

No wonder nonprofit organizations are in so much trouble.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

KDG December 1, 2009 at 11:37 am

Perhaps one of the businesses they link people with would be willing to do the work pro bono – they need to use their own network.

Alena December 22, 2009 at 1:17 am

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Maureen Carruthers February 17, 2010 at 6:39 am

This post is really resonates with me because it clarifies there really is a sweet spot for how non-profits use resources. Free and cheap is not always the answer– sometimes you do get what you pay for. On the other hand, most nonprofits are afraid to try new things because if it doesn’t work they will have misspent precious resources. In that case, using free or very inexpensive resources is a way to experiment and build a culture where it’s ok to try ideas before they’ve been vetted to death. Then, it makes sense to put more resources behind the ideas that start to bear fruit.

Chataun R. Denis March 11, 2010 at 7:19 pm

As a nonprofit consultant and trainer, I work with numerous nonprofits that can’t seem to pry away from the outdated, ‘give your services away for free’ business model. I then had the bright idea to start promoting social entrepreneurship. Many people think that starting a nonprofit is a precursor to giving back. This is a very popular misconception. Social-entrepreneurship allows people to do work they love, give back, and earn a living. This mindset is the opposite of the traditional ‘profit-less’ model so many existing, failing nonprofits are using.

Sandra Sims March 23, 2010 at 7:08 pm

I sat in board meeting once where the ED asked the board if she could spend $25 on a Sam’s club membership. Come on… you don’t have the discretionary power to spend that little cash?

The “everything for free” mindset is a symptom of operating in a world of lack and fear. If you live in a world of abundance, there will be more than enough to fund programs, build strong funding foundation and pay outside and inside professionals appropriately.

When I have seen progress it has been because of a major change in leadership.

Jessica W. February 5, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Pamela, you make a great point in this article. I have worked in non-profit for over 10 years, for organizations with varying sized budgets. All of my orgs made fundraising a top priority, and budgeting to cut costs a top priority as well. However, when you are a fundraiser, you have to have a great argument for why your work costs money and why it’s worthwhile for people to fund. You have an overhead percentage and you have to explain it – that overhead is people’s jobs of course (and jobs are a sacred cow in today’s political lexicon, so they should be respected, right?). But what struck me about this article is that if we work so hard in NPOs to ensure that others see the value in OUR work, why do we try so hard to devalue the work of others by trying to always get services for free? It’s a pretty obnoxious double standard, and we’re definitely hurting others to get ahead by perpetuating this trend.

Isaac Shalev August 4, 2014 at 5:06 pm

I once spoke to the CEO of a big tech company that makes custom software and applications for business. I told him that nonprofits could represent a good market for him.

He said “They’re terrible clients. They don’t want to pay, and they don’t refer business.”

Nonprofits are so starved for resources that they become irrational about these things, in the same way that a person starved of oxygen or food will begin to hallucinate.

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