What To Do About Zombie Nonprofit Organizations?

What To Do About Zombie Nonprofit Organizations?

In my work with nonprofits it can feel like I’m in the Land Of The Living Dead with all the zombie organizations I encounter.  At times it feels like the world is awash in nonprofits which lumber on with grossly underpaid employees and dysfunctional infrastructure. Our communities are chock full of organizations with caring but demoralized staff, outdated information systems, semi-functional Boards Of Directors. So why aren’t more leaders asking themselves about their own relevancy.  If a nonprofit cannot raise enough capital to pay employees adequately as well as maintain a functional infrastructure, then perhaps it is time for the Board to ask, ‘If we can’t be first class, is it time to get out of the business?” In the Age Of Austerity nonprofits must continually surround themselves with different kinds of talent and ultimately discuss if the community would be better served by either merging or else relocating programs and closing up shop. In the private sector, companies frequently reach the limits of growth in their current state and face the choice of either gradual decay or of selling the operation. They can’t, on their own, acquire the resources to take the enterprise to the next level of competitive excellence. Unless they find a partner or buyer, the company eventually employs round after round of cost cutting: gutting professional development, sticking with antiquated equipment, eliminating employee benefits, job consolidations, layoffs, etc. This continues until a fire sale or bankruptcy. Yet in the nonprofit sector this continual decay never seems to reach the terminal stage. Organizations are able of secure just enough contracts or donations to barely limp along in a...
Why Our Service Organizations Are Dying (and how to fix them)

Why Our Service Organizations Are Dying (and how to fix them)

Nothing more American than a service club.  Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, IOOF, Altrusa, Shriners……   Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville rode all over the United States in the 1830s and was struck by the influence of religious, fraternal and civic organizations, and secret societies, on American democracy and concluded that they made communities stronger, more interesting, and more engaged. But there are some reason for concern. All of these service clubs, once the backbone of community life in America, have been in significant decline over the past 2-3 decades.  It is not that our clubs have changed.  America has changed.  Thus the imperative is for us to reinvent for a new America. Declining Social Capital In his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Robert Putnam documented that attending club meetings, such as those held by Rotary and Kiwanis groups, has declined by 58 percent in the period 1975-2000.  This trend continued and even accelerated in the 21st century.   Putnam notes it’s part of an overall trend by Americans who also have 43 percent fewer family dinners. Thirty-five percent fewer of us have friends who drop in to see us at our homes. Pick an organization and the numbers are telling.  In the past two decades Rotary down 20%, Jaycees down 64%, Masons down 76%.  Recalling de Tocqueville’s observation about the role our clubs play in a civil society, this decline represents a tangible loss to community. The question remains, ‘Where do we go from here?” Since most service club leaders are in office but for one year, they shoot for short term quick fixes such as a membership...
June 6th – The Marines Deadliest Day

June 6th – The Marines Deadliest Day

At the end of the day scores of Marines lay dead.  It was June 6th….just not the June 6th you were expecting. A couple of decades ago while on one of my frequent jaunts hitchhiking trips across the United States I came into a small Dakota town, grabbed lunch at a typical mom and pop general store and sat down to eat in the shade of the town square. Next to me was a small monument dedicated to all the county dead from ‘The Great War’ as it was called at the time. Later to be known as the First World War (after we experienced a second round of slaughter). What caught my eye was not the list of 35-40 names engraved on the front, it was that 1/2 were listed as dying in some strange place named Belleau Wood . Later I learned that it was at The Battle of Belleau Wood on June 6, 1918 that the US Marines suffered the deadliest day in their history…..1,087 dead. Having suffered heavy casualties, the Germans dug in along a defensive line from Hill 204, just east of Vaux, to Le Thiolet on the Paris-Metz Highway and northward through Belleau Wood After Marines were repeatedly urged to turn back by retreating French forces, Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines uttered the words that were to pass into legend among the Corps “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.” It was also the Germans first encounter with the US Marines who fought with such ferocity that the Huns later called them Tuefel Hunden….Devil Dogs. The date June 6th...
Foster Sayers: The Making Of An American Hero

Foster Sayers: The Making Of An American Hero

Say the name Foster Sayers around Central Pennsylvania and most people will probably reference the lake encompassed by Bald Eagle State Park, even though they don’t know exactly why the names are connected.   Sayers was just a country kid from Centre County, Pennsylvania. Some called him a bit of a roustabout…a ruffian…nobody special. Feeling a bit aimless he volunteered for the US Army in the middle of WWII.   Nothing in his training or service made him stand out as anything special.  Just another kid taking part in the most destructive war in history. One which would eventually leave 60 million dead.   He was assigned to Company L, 357th Infantry, 90th Infantry Division.  The 90th were known as the Tough Hombres, but in battle were anything but.  Poor leadership plagued the outfit leading Gen. George S. Patton to famously quip to reporters ‘The Division is bad”.    Into this notoriously underperforming came Private First Class Foster Sayers.   Then, in November of 1944 with his company engaged in fierce fighting near Thionville, France, Foster Sayers moved forward on his own initiative to engage two German machine gun emplacements thus drawing their fire so the rest of his company could move across an open field and outflank the enemy position. While his mates wiped out the Nazi defenders, Sayers was hit multiple times and died that day from his wounds. From his citation: He displayed conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty in combat on 12 November 1944, near Thionville, France. During an attack on strong hostile forces entrenched on a hill he fearlessly ran up the steep approach toward his objective and set up his machinegun...
How Entrepreneurs Will Save Education In Erie PA

How Entrepreneurs Will Save Education In Erie PA

In what can only be described as a stunning gambit, the Erie (PA) school board is threatening to permanently close all four of the city high schools unless the state of Pennsylvania sends more dollars to schools in the city by the lake. It’s a matter of equity, according to superintendent Jay Badams, “We simply can’t offer them close to the same experience their peers in other districts have locally.” While many consider this just to be a bit of cheap political theater, dismantling the high schools could be the best news Erie kids have received in 50 years. What drives most public school employees is their foundational belief that they are the last guardians of education against meddling parents, corporate interests and a political process that has gone insane.  From this perspective, school leaders simply cannot see themselves as the root of this broken system.  Yet those who howl the loudest are the same ones who design the ineffectual curricula, bloat their administrative staff, negotiate inflated labor contracts, and lobby for sweetheart pension plans.  The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars… In the private economy, any company which operated in the same high cost-low results manner as public schools would have been swept aside long ago.  The only thing enabling this system to lumber on is the ability of the government to extract money from the populace and redistribute it to those trained in maintaining the status quo. This worked in a world where the pie continued to expand and Erie could get a larger than proportional chunk of the new money.  But the Pennsylvania economy has...
7 Reasons Why We Need To Be Public Speakers

7 Reasons Why We Need To Be Public Speakers

It’s 2008 at a nonprofit conference full of breakouts and public speakers. Up at the lectern was the director of a nonprofit doing fantastic work with the homeless. I long admired her work and anticipated hearing her talk. Yet that day I was practically bleeding from the ears with boredom. This woman, who lead an impressive nonprofit, sounded as interesting as a file clerk at the department of motor vehicles.  What happened? Most of us don’t craft our presentations to be spectacular, we design them not to be disasters.  This is Defensive Speaking, which is similar to doctors who practice Defensive Medicine.  It’s the investment of scarce resources making sure we don’t foul up royally as opposed to devoting our energy towards attempting the incredible. Thus most of our presentations are boring because the majority of presentations we sit through are boring.  Everyone is trying so hard not to look like a fool that very few are brilliant. This won’t cut it anymore. In a world with tsunamis of information, being average is as good as being invisible. Mediocre presentations hurt our organization. Whether speaking at an event we organized or addressing a group convened by others, somebody is investing a lot of time and energy to bring this audience together.  Appearing before a group of real live people is an enormous chance to move them, to inspire them, to excite them about our mission.  Second-rate talks are an opportunity lost. A limp address encourages a good chunk of the audience to think certain thoughts:  “Their leaders are lifeless”, “Their future is not bright”, “They’re not worthy of my donation...
Take Part In The Strengths Revolution

Take Part In The Strengths Revolution

Midnight approaches. People turn their attention to the clock on the wall, or the big ball falling from above. The countdown continues with those around you raising their voices as the seconds tick by….5 …4 …3 ..2 …1 ….HAPPY NEW YEAR!. A fresh year. A fresh start. Resolutions to do better in the coming 12 months. But in the midnight hour consider how many pledges are focused upon fixing a weakness. Thus we start off the promise of this new beginning by dragging in our baggage from the past. This personal attitude bleeds over into our lives as employees and leaders. We become preoccupied with identifying what’s wrong and then pouring massive amounts of resources into fixing “the problem”.   But what if we were to take that same precious energy and used it to build upon what we do well? Might we benefit more by improving what we are doing right? Is there value in building upon strengths versus fixing weaknesses? [ALSO READ: The Damage From "Just Doing Our Job"] We’ve Been Trained All Wrong Much of basic management literature up until recently lionized ‘problem solvers’. Too often our organizations rewarded those who could fix problems, even when it meant the heroes were surreptitiously creating new problems to be solved. Then in the 90s a fundamental transformation in thinking began to take hold. Research revealed that what made leaders great was the presence of strengths and not the absence of weaknesses. Our view about how leaders can improve suddenly shifted.   Thus was born the Strengths Revolution. Humans are a diverse lot. Each of us come with a combination of...
We Can Get More Business Through Our Philanthropy

We Can Get More Business Through Our Philanthropy

In the military, Spray And Pray is a derisive term for firing an automatic weapon towards an enemy in long bursts, without making an effort to line up each shot or burst of shots. This lack of focus is prevalent amongst those without the benefit of proper training. Sloppily directed fire is ultimately wasteful.  Unfortunately, too much of business philanthropy mirrors this Spray And Pray. Every day hundreds of thousands and millions of small donations are made with the possibility they a) do some good in the community and b) provide some recognition of our ‘good corporate citizenship.’   Spray And Pray is a strategy based on hope and hope is not a strategy. Seeking Value One of the cornerstones of enterprise development is The Value Proposition.  In approaching potential backers, the formal proposal states the case for why an investment of “X” will create “Y” amount of value to the investor.  But this approach is one that traditional nonprofits have been slow to embrace when dealing with potential business sponsors. The typical charity pitch involves the search for funding to support the mission. Thus the appeal is often intensely focused on those needs.  Rarely is the value to our business part of the equation.  But in an age where networks are crucial to success, providing mutual benefit creates strong long term relationships which enhance the nonprofit’s effectiveness as well as the bottom line of our business. “I get 40 requests per month.  That’s more than one per day.  I can’t say yes to all, but don’t know how to pick and choose which ones are right for me”. The...
The Day We Almost Put A Teacher In Space

The Day We Almost Put A Teacher In Space

“Roger, go at throttle up” Commander Dick Scobee, last transmission from Challenger Despite all the talk of O-rings and pushing the boundaries to space, the explosion of the space shuttle that morning 30 years ago was primarily a failure of humans and not machines.   By 1986, NASA knew the design of the solid rockets was faulty. They knew the O-rings were vulnerable to burn through. They had even ordered a new generation of solid rocket boosters with a different joint design. But until the new boosters came online, they’d fly the old. The engineers at the company building the boosters, Morton-Thiokol, were deeply concerned. Their team had already documented that the O-rings stiffened in colder weather. Evidence of O-ring damage occurred in a previous launch at 52 degrees.   On the morning of January 28, 1986 the thermometer plunged to a low of 29. The night before launch, Thiokol engineers, led by Roger Boisjoly, were warning NASA; ‘Don’t do it….DON’T DO IT.’   But every previous flight went OK, so NASA eventually got Thiokol management to overrule its own engineers. The result was history. “Success is a lousy teacher. It teaches smart people they cannot lose” – Bill Gates The Nissan Sentra had a leaky master brake cylinder. Just a drip or two.   My friend’s mechanic said no option but to replace it and do it now as it could completely fail at any time. Two hundred dollars to make it right.   But he was a poor college student back then and a couple hundred bucks was a stretch. It would take a week or so to scrape up the money, but in...
“Today Is Not OK” – Lessons In Driving Change From Martin Luther King

“Today Is Not OK” – Lessons In Driving Change From Martin Luther King

It feels like the ‘Vision’ chapter of every management book sooner or later references Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial back in 1963.  Yes, it belongs in the canon of famous American addresses. However, our focus upon his words that August afternoon misses something very important….before he could provide a vision of the future,  MLK spent a decade preparing the ground by educating America about the problem of the present. Often overlooked is that the Black community in the 1950s was reaping the benefits of the post-WWII economic boom.  Maybe not in the same measure as the majority, but for the average African American their lives were considerably materially better than the 1940s and substantially better than the depression years of the 1930s.  It is in this environment that Martin Luther King stood up to say that despite the monetary gains, life was deplorable without civil liberties. Everybody rightfully lauds the I Have a Dream speech, but more importantly to King’s work were the hundreds of speeches he gave in the decade preceding the big one, where before crowds large and small MLK explained the problem with the present reality.  In a time where people were feeling more materially satiated, he had to drive them out of their comfort zone until they accepted that their present condition was unacceptable. If you’re a leader, you can’t move people to a new tomorrow if they believe today is OK.  You can’t get them to ‘there’ unless they agree that continuing to stay ‘here’ is not acceptable.  We live in a time of tremendous transformation, but the natural human temptation is to...