Passion vs. Skills in a Nonprofit

IMG_20160315_114427Recently I listened to a kerfuffle about how much money a nonprofit needed. The organization is pretty stripped down and runs on minimal staffing with maximum volunteer labor. Some members argued the organization could run on almost all volunteer labor and a smaller budget if it restructured. The comments reminded me of a break-out session at a conference I attended.

The session was filled with development staff for arts organizations. Most of them were young, dewy eyed, and barely making a living wage probably. A couple of us old wizened types were in the room. The moderator asked which was more important in the fundraising work – passion or skills. All the young ones raised their hands for passion. Us oldsters raised our hands for skills.

Saying that a nonprofit can get by on passion or volunteers is a bit like a couple telling each other they can live on love. If times are good and luck goes their way, they might survive. They might even thrive. If not, then the couple is going to have problems and so is the organization.

This perception that an organization should be able to get by on less seems to be particularly strong in small nonprofits that rely heavily on volunteer labor. Often these nonprofits were started by all volunteers or had one underpaid maniacal person who did much of the work. That may not be a sustainable model. Here’s some reasons why.

  • Fatigue – While an idea is fresh and the passion is new, people rally around a cause. Eventually many of the people doing the hard work wear out, move on, or even pass away. Alternatively, the organization may grow too large for the volunteers to manage without exhausting themselves. At this point the organization needs more competent volunteers and may not get them because of…
  • Half Solved Problems – A nonprofit exists to solve problems or meet needs. If the initial flurry of activity solved the need or problem permanently, that’s great. But what if it was only solved partway or maintenance is needed for it to stay solved? A half solved problem isn’t as obvious or compelling as the unsolved one. The organization will get less donors, attract fewer volunteers, and lose momentum. A solution exists, but it won’t be found without…
  • Strategic Planning – Determining a course to re-energize a nonprofit can be complicated. The clear vision of the need and how to address it that started the organization has morphed with time and half solved problems. Someone has to decide the steps to take to best service the clientele. In order to do this, that someone needs to have…
  • Experience – Anyone can run a small nonprofit, right? Just look at the PTO at your neighborhood school. That would be the same PTO that is alternately reviled and adored by parents as a horrible clique, overstepping beggars, and saintly volunteers. Running a serious nonprofit – no matter what the size – requires management, financial, and visionary skills. If an organization is going to be fast and flexible in response to whatever gets thrown its way, then it needs someone who has the power to make decisions. Finding that person requires…
  • Money – We no longer live in an era filled with single wage earner families and a wildly competent spouse who is desperate to fill their time with good works. Wildly competent people expect to be paid for their work. Furthermore, a volunteer can shuffle a job to one side if life gets complicated. Management by a committee of volunteers is a great way to have an organization move slowly. A paid staff person must make the work a priority. If you want a responsive leader with skills, you need to pay for them.

There are exceptions. Some nonprofits can get by without paid staff. Maybe they only run one large event per year, and it is so high profile that volunteers flock to the group. Maybe there is a constant turnover of enthusiastic volunteers like an elementary school PTO. But what about the other nonprofits?

In general, nonprofit work is a long slog through scrambling for funding, grumpy people, and impossible situations to solve with inadequate resources. When the number of nonprofits went up exponentially compared to the available funding, that slog got harder. A decently paid and large enough staff enables an organization to make a plan, execute it, and communicate with their clientele. A happier clientele means more support for the organization. It’s cyclical. Without one, it is hard to have the other.

Staff and operating expenses are incredibly unsexy overhead items. They’re hard to get funding to support. To many people, staff time and operating expenses appear as unnecessary as whatever the Wizard was doing behind the curtain in the Emerald City. The Wizard may have been pulling a fast one over the denizens of Oz, but nonprofits are not. Passion alone is not sustainable or effective. Nonprofits require skilled staff if they are to thrive.


A Flowchart for Messages to Volunteers

How you communicate with volunteers – whether you are staff or a volunteer of a nonprofit – is as important as the actual information you convey. Here is why. Nonprofits have four basic resources that they need to survive: money, infrastructure, people, and goodwill. How you deliver that information is one of the major ways an organization can gain or lose goodwill.

Without adequate goodwill, an organization runs the risk of losing the financial support and manpower provided by volunteers. If your organization relies on volunteers, you should provide regular, well written communication that makes them feel valued. You lose goodwill when you communicate irregularly and don’t express your appreciation.

The following is a flow chart to help you write a message to volunteers or to check the message you have written.  It is also available as a pdf here.

Volunteer Messaging

Talking to Supporters – Look Like You Care

SmileLast week I watched a meet-and-greet between the board of a non-profit and their members. The board isn’t popular, so maybe that’s why they looked tense and wary during the Q&A. It’s hard to appear receptive and inviting when you feel on the defensive. If so, they could have faked it better if they’d followed some basic rules of meeting with volunteers, members or donors.

  1. Smile when you call on people. Preferably a smile that you would give to a friend walking into your house, not the kind the crocodile gave to Captain Hook. Make them feel that their comments and they themselves are welcome.
  2. Don’t just answer a person’s question and then move on. Ask for clarification or more details so the person believes that you value their opinion or validate their concerns. You want them to know that you heard their specific concerns and aren’t just parroting a stock answer.
  3. After you answer their question, check that your answer adequately addressed their concerns.
  4. If someone offers help, express your appreciation and sound like you will genuinely consider the offer – whether or not you will. Take their information and make sure someone follows up, even if it’s just to say no thanks.

If you’re in a position of authority, you need to worry about more than getting your facts right.  You need to care about how you deliver them. Good will is one of a non-profit’s greatest resources. Being right doesn’t matter if you’ve ticked off your constituency or made them distrustful. Every face-to-face encounter is a chance to convey that the people running a non-profit are receptive, responsive and responsible.  Whether or not you feel that way, it’s your job to look like you care.