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 Our communities are chock full of organizations with caring but demoralized staff, outdated information systems, semi-functional Boards Of Directors.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...