I’m always envious of the for profit companies. I know they have their bad days (Tesla after it’s car crash) but their business plan is so simple. Make Money. Two elegant words that everyone understands.
The non profit world is messy business. We are mission driven. That one phrase leads to our great challenge – arrogance. If you are really good at understanding your mission, then criticism from stakeholders runs off your back like water off a duck. We actually like criticism because it shows us how the peasants really don’t understand. Criticism becomes a compliment.
Government contracts often struggle against the unique mission of a particular non profit. Government does not want to cut individual deals with 1.5 million nonprofits in the USA. They simply specify what they want to do and we rush to respond to the RFP.
- Government contracts are often written to prevent failure rather than strive for success. Youth diversion contracts are written to count kids in seats, not to measure more peace and confidence for an angry teen from a broken home. Mission driven non profits often are organized for more specific results.
- Government contracts are politically driven. That means that the next President, Governor or Mayor can ruin the excellence that you built. Contracts get cancelled. New contracts veer off in new directions. I honestly understand the many non profits who have given up on excellence in mission and simply supply whatever minimums are required.
Families and Clients
Families often don’t understand what they need or why we offer specific resources. Example: While you may be the specialist in lactation therapy for babies, that does not mean that parents will simply rush to fill your appointments. They don’t connect their need with your resources.
- People live for their fears and your mission may not connect. Do you know how many parents ask about gluten in food programs? Only 1% of the nation is allergic to gluten. From parent comments, you would think it’s the silent killer of America.
- People have trouble measuring the quality of service industries so they look for symbols of quality that have nothing to do with your mission. You provide quality daycare and parents look. They look to see if you bought Little Colorado train tables. And are the tables low formaldehyde? The symbol has little to do with the quality of your service.
The most painful critic should be the management and board. Sometimes the mission has not been carefully considered and you have critics because you deserve critics. Is your agency really providing (1) measurable results (2) at a reasonable cost (3) for a worthy group of stakeholders? That key question (Carver) needs to be reviewed regularly.
I was recently at a gala for another agency. The evening was filled with spectacular comments about getting basic rights for prisoners across the globe. The speakers were inspiring. The reasonable cost and how to raise it was never mentioned. The speakers were traveling constantly and regaled us with stories of trips. Perhaps they should change the mission to bringing prisoner care packages on their trips.
How to Stay the Best and Survive
Let’s assume that you have done the self criticism and your mission is clearer and better than ever. What are some steps to protect it without irritating all your stakeholders?
- Reduce the areas where you are unique to the bare minimum. This is no time for grand gestures that add little value to the end results. If your need to add your special elements to a government contract at your own expense, most contractors have no trouble with that.
- Any unneeded extra uniqueness has to be paid from your free cash. Ouch.
- All parts of a program need staff orientation and professional development. The simpler program requires less effort in training and will be easier to achieve highest quality results.
- Tie your mission to stakeholder fears. The Challenger Sale is a six step process for sales. Two of the six steps are Rational Drowning and Emotional Impact (Dixon). Both steps show the customer more about the problem before talking about the sale. Example: Why do I have to pay $2,000 for Test Prep? I’m ready to accept that price after someone teaches me why kids are struggling with the Common Core. Once I understand that most children will spend their career saying “You want fries with that burger?”, I’m ready to listen to why I need your non profit service.
NonProfits are mission driven which gives us great privilege to look at society and direct resources to areas of strongest need. We have to accomplish that mission with humility and realize that we need the good will of the stakeholders. They are trying to make the best decisions too. We have to be smart as to how to apply our mission to contracts and we have to understand client fears before we announce that we are the magic cure.
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Carver, John. Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990; 3rd edition, 2006. Print
Dixon, Matthew, and Brent Adamson. The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2011. Print.