“We just can’t seem to find any good candidates. So, where do we go from here?” The Chairman asks the rest of the nonprofit board in a meeting. Other board members sit in silence. No one sees, or wants to admit, the real issue.

This board of a mid-size nonprofit has been looking for a new executive director for months with no success. They mutually parted ways with their previous leader after years of stagnation.

I’m sitting at the table listening and observing as a young nonprofit management consultant. The problem is obvious to me. Why isn’t anyone saying something?

The compensation is FAR BELOW comparable nonprofits and entry-level corporate positions with no benefits. They are proud of their ability to operate on a shoestring budget. They love how much of each gift goes directly to its programs. Is that a problem?

Not necessarily. The bigger problem is too many in the nonprofit sector are afraid to invest in overhead, administration, marketing, systems, and other essential areas an organization needs to thrive. Underinvesting and unrealistic expectations has many negative effects including the infamous nonprofit burnout. However, many nonprofits repeat the process over and over and over again.

So why do we expect nonprofit organizations to grow without the resources they need when we all understand it’s what businesses need to grow?

Should the fact that nonprofits have a noble mission mean they should be asked to do more with less?

Dan Pallotta wrote Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential in 2008. He wrote another book, Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community can Stand Up for Itself and Really Change the World in 2012.

“Finally! Someone talking about this disconnect I’m seeing firsthand” I thought as I read the books, watched his TED Talk, and shared it with as many people as I could at the time.

Now, Uncharitable has been made into a documentary, and there’s renewed momentum behind this conversation.

I had a chance to watch a screening of the documentary. There are way too many thoughts to share in a blog.

Here are two quick things nonprofits leaders should understand:


1. Nonprofit leaders and professional fundraisers also need to evolve.

Uncharitable addresses how society, the media, foundations, watchdog organizations, and others need to shift the way they think about how nonprofits should operate. This is true, but we can’t just point the finger at those on the outside. Those who work for nonprofit organizations have a responsibility too.

I see staff leadership decisions almost every day based on:

  • “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
  • “The board/donors may question why we changed it.”
  • “We can’t afford the risk of doing it another way. What if it doesn’t work?”

Nonprofit leaders can’t keep making the same decisions assuming their board members and donors still have this “restrictive” way of thinking.

The documentary briefly mentions some donors aren’t putting those restraints on nonprofits anymore. I believe it’s more than just a few. More and more board members and donors aren’t as hung up on overhead costs as they used to be. Many also understand the value of applying some for-profit practices to the nonprofit sector.

To the executive directors and development directors out there, what are you going to do next year that will push the envelope?

2. There’s risk and there’s recklessness.

WARNING: You’re going to leave the documentary feeling energized to start a massive bike ride or a huge marketing campaign.

Taking calculated risks is a good thing. Just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks isn’t just risky. It’s reckless.

Remind yourself the big campaigns you see in the documentary require the right planning, preparation, and follow up in order to be successful and sustainable. They weren’t meant to say your best fundraising opportunity if to have a big visible event. We shouldn’t get caught up in the hype and forget what we know to be true about event-based fundraising and the differences between marketing and fundraising.

I agree there should be more room for nonprofits to take risks. Those risks don’t have to look like a big event. It can start with something small like redesigning the newsletter that hasn’t changed in a decade to tell more stories or investing in a well produced video.

Or… and just hear me out on this… it could be investing in relationship building activities with donors even if it means less time working on events. Could you lose some opportunities in the short-term? Possibly. Will you raise A LOT more money over time with deeper relationships? Definitely.

Do this:

Go see the documentary if you can. Take board members and staff. Make a plan to continue the conversation after you see it. Ask your board members and donors what they think. Use this documentary to spark strategic discussions about what your organization should take away and apply moving forward.

Does your organization need a strategic plan to incorporate some of these principles? Ready to have a plan that builds your nonprofit’s business model and fundraising efforts? 

Let’s have a strategy session together!

Here’s the link to schedule a FREE Strategy Session.

As always, THANK YOU for reading. Have a great day!

All the best,

Kenny Sigler, CFRE