Yep, it's true, the nonprofit sector doesn't have enough money. There are lots of reasons for that, but part of it stems from the taboos the nonprofit sector (and the staffs, boards and donors within it) perpetuates. But perhaps if we lay them bare, we can start to break free from them.
Nonprofit taboos are so insidious because they are unwritten and unquestioned. But that has to stop. If we want to move the nonprofit sector forward, we must uncover certain taboos and determine whether they are really unacceptable anymore.
Here are the five most egregious taboos in the nonprofit sector:
1. Nonprofits Shouldn't Raise a Surplus
For some reason it is unseemly for a nonprofit to have more money than they immediately need. If a nonprofit is not just barely breaking even, it is somehow unworthy of raising more money. To the contrary, a nonprofit that has operating reserves can invest in a more sustainable organization, conduct R&D to make sure their solution is the best one, recruit a highly competent staff, and weather economic fluctuations. It is far better to invest in an organization that is well poised to attack a social problem than one that is barely able to keep the lights on.
2. Nonprofits Shouldn't Pay Market Rate Salaries
I won't join the crazy controversy that surrounds nonprofit executive salary levels, but let me simply point out that nonprofits exist within a market economy, that is a fact. If someone is great at what they do, and they can make more money elsewhere, eventually they will do so. It is simple economics. I understand that mission is a driving force for people attracted to the nonprofit sector, but as competition in the social change space continues to grow, the best and brightest will be lured away by other nonprofits, government entities, or for-profit social enterprises. So if you want to attract and retain a really talented employee, you've got to pay them accordingly.
3. Nonprofits Shouldn't Demand Board Members Fundraise
Why not? Seriously, I don't get this one at all. If your governing body is free to make strategic and programmatic decisions without understanding, first hand, the financial implications of those decisions, you are setting your nonprofit up for failure. Mission and money must be strategically aligned, and the first and most important place that alignment occurs is at the board level. There are plenty of ways for board members to get involved in the financial engine of their nonprofit. Let's stop apologizing for having to make money in the nonprofit sector and start requiring every single board member get actively involved in the process.
4. Nonprofits Shouldn't Question Donors
Donors hold the purse strings so nonprofit leaders are unwilling to tell them how it really is. But if the sector continues to act like a grateful recipient of a wealthy person's or institution's largesse, that power imbalance will continue, as will the dysfunctions that accompany it. If instead nonprofits and funders were equal partners working together to solve a problem, maybe we could get somewhere. But this will only happen if nonprofit leaders become more confident at telling their donors (and board members) how it really is. And if nonprofit leaders are more strategic about diversifying their financial model so they are no longer beholden to a few funders.
5. Nonprofits Shouldn't Invest in Fundraising
In the nonprofit world the fundraising function is equivalent to the sales and marketing function of the business world. No one expects Apple to create amazing gadgets and then sit back and hope people show up and buy them. They have an extensive and well-financed marketing and sales function. But nonprofits are expected to spend as little as humanly possible on fundraising. Added to that, nonprofits are even more challenged because they have two, not just one, set of customers: 1) the clients they serve who often can't pay for services, and 2) the funders who pay for those services. So we are telling nonprofits to recruit and serve two sets of customers on a shoestring. That's crazy. We have to get over the idea that investing in fundraising (high quality staff, technology, expertise, planning, marketing) is a bad thing.
At the end of the day, we have to stop apologizing for the realities of the nonprofit sector. It's time nonprofit leaders stand up and start demanding the end to some serious strictures that hold them back from doing their jobs. And, let's remember, those jobs are to solve some of the most complex problems facing our communities. Those jobs are probably more easily and effectively done in the absence of crazy taboos.