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Unto Ourselves

By Thomas McLaughlin - May 1, 2014

Everyone knows of a nonprofit that seems to exist apart from every other organization and everything. The managers at this organization, usually successful at accomplishing mission and often adequately financed, seem content to keep its distance from peer organizations.

Sometimes the sense of distance is re­inforced by a slightly remote location. Its executives suggest more distance. They often seem to operate at arm’s length from their counterparts. The whole picture silently says “nothing personal, we just prefer it this way . . . We are Unto Ourselves.”

Why should anyone care about this syndrome? From a purely selfish perspective, a reasonable reaction would be to shrug and go on about one’s business. If they want to be aloof, let them. But funders and regulators in many areas of the nonprofit sector are beginning to insist on greater coordination and collaboration among those previously providing what seemed to be designed as standalone programs.  Today’s distant peer might become tomorrow’s required collaboration partner. And even if the stakes are neither high nor immediate, it’s always preferable for nonprofits to have closer ties.

A nonprofit tends to grow when it is successful in its mission. But, organizational mass is just like physical mass — the larger the mass, the greater the field of gravity. It’s hard to look outward when you and your colleagues are all being tugged inward.

To show what insiders and outsiders see in this phenomenon, here are a few key aspects of some groups’ culture. In each case it’s a look inside and then at what those on the outside world see.

 

Legacy

As someone should have once said, “a good name weighs heavily.” Most legacy nonprofits have been around for multiple years and carry a special burden because of it. Often the organization has been around for a truly long time, even a century or more in some parts of the country. It might well have high name recognition among the general public, and the group’s building (or buildings) probably look the part — stately, elegant structures that ooze respectability and consistent accomplishment.  The portrait is compelling.

Now look at the situation from the CEO’s perspective. Can there be any question about their mindset? Justifiably, they have to be filled with pride that they were selected to carry on this solid reputation. The CEO knows that the amount of the community’s warmth and affection almost automatically transfers to the person, opening doors and making linkages that couldn’t possibly come on their own. And if that CEO is at all human, a single thought lurks constantly in the back of their mind . . . please don’t let me be the one that messes this up.

What would you do if you had this nagging fear? You’d spend more time on the campus, of course. You’re the boss, who better to make sure that those served by the nonprofit will create yet another group of success stories? This is how organizational gravity works on the CEO.

 

Wealth

Most nonprofits spend a lot of their time dealing with funding challenges. Unto Themselves organizations have the opposite problem. With success comes more funding and with more funding comes more success. The self-reinforcing circle is usually reflected in the organization’s bank accounts, the quality of the staff, the attractiveness of the buildings, and the caliber and number of their donors. This is all to the good, at least from the perspective of the budget.

But organizational wealth can lead to a comfort level that leads to conservative decision-making, which leads to less innovation. Experimenting with new ideas, it might be argued, risks harm — or irrelevance. What if you’re publicly wrong about the attempt at innovation? This logic tends to create a reputation of heavily favoring the status quo. Alternatively, the nonprofit’s leaders might determine to become the leader in their type of services, a reasonable goal in view of their fiscal health.

Shunning innovation to protect wealth can eventually feed a withering judgment by peers and competitors — this distant entity is intent on creating its own version of the movie Groundhog Day.

 

Size

Nonprofits that are Unto Themselves might have a size problem, but it’s not the “we’re too small to do this” lament that many peers share. The size problem comes from the fact that the organization has succeeded for a long time, and with success comes more opportunities and then one day it could dwarf many of its peers.

Everyone knows that large organizations tend to move more slowly than their peers. Coordination and communication tend to break down as an organization grows larger and more complicated. This creates more of that organizational gravity for executives and managers. They need to be sure that their centipede of an organization can continue to coordinate. And, you can’t do that from the outside.

 

Demonstrated Effectiveness

Finally, Unto Themselves nonprofits tend to be good at what they do. Being good at a complex service virtually requires a strong inward focus to learn procedures and skills and to build a good team. This creates yet another inward organizational gravity tug for executives and managers.

 

What to do

Most of what needs to happen to change the aloof image of a nonprofit revolves around the chief executive officer, who has to recognize and take action to counteract the negative part of the organization’s image.

In the beginning, many of these things seem to be little more than symbols because the Unto Themselves label is largely based on inadvertent symbolic messages that have built up over the years. The workplan should be compatible with the organization’s actual size and influence. The larger the organization relative to its peers, the more extensive the plan needed. Here are a few ideas.

Join an association. Associations usually function on two levels – external, where the association’s goal is to influence political decisions, and internal — the other members of the association (especially the opinion-makers). CEOs trying to rebuild the organization’s image with peers will want to concentrate mostly on those peers via the association. Part of an association’s job is to create opportunities to communicate with one’s fellow members — before it’s urgent to do so.

Join the association’s board. There are typically an infinite number of small advantages to being on an association’s board of directors. These range from things such as access to key industry “shapers” to early warnings of upcoming policy changes to simply an extended communications network.

Create or rejuvenate relationships with peers. Lateral relationships with peer organizations have two aspects, competitive analysis and social capital accumulation. Sooner or later you’ll need both. Often the strongest peers will be more or less similar to your organization in size and strategic position. These are the groups that “look like you.”

Initiate. Nonprofit CEOs with good reputations often are initiators. They see an opportunity or a threat as a chance to shape the collective dialog. While it is true that what one initiates typically supports one’s own organization’s interests, it will almost certainly do the same for others.

Go to Their Places. Unto Themselves executives are usually happy to bring others onto their turf. Make a point of going onto their turf. This is an almost purely symbolic, but powerful gesture.

Involve your staff. Under the correct circumstances other executive staff mem­bers represent a strong statement about your organization’s engagement with the outside world. Encouraging them to pursue external opportunities that fit their needs creates more good will for your whole organization.

Certain types of successful nonprofits and their top executives inadvertently create an off-putting image. Their choices and behaviors make it clear that they are Unto Themselves. Their organization’s legacy, wealth, size and demonstrated effectiveness drive the point home even further.

In an environment of increasingly integrated services this strategy can be a strategic disadvantage. But with an external mindset and an appreciation for the impact of their own actions, they can turn Unto You.  NPT

Thomas A. McLaughlin is the founder of the nonprofit-oriented consulting firm McLaughlin & Associates and a faculty member at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He is the author of Nonprofit Strategic Positioning: Decide Where to Be, Plan What to Do, published by Wiley. His email address is tamclaughlin@comcast.net

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