Are you King of your nonprofit forest?

As a new business owner who just opened up a nonprofit & fundraising consulting practice, I’ve made it my business to “get around”. In addition to visiting with many of my oldest and dearest non-profit friends in Elgin, Illinois, I recently attended a regional Boys & Girls Club conference and engaged countless staff and board volunteers from around the country through a very aggressive social media strategy including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and this blog. While I don’t want to exaggerate, I was surprised at how many conversations looked and sounded like this “Wizard of Oz” YouTube clip.

Here were some of the things heard I nonprofit CEOs, fundraising professionals, and board volunteers saying that leaves me wondering “King or Coward”:

  • “Erik, I am so sick and tired of my board volunteers passing the buck on fundraising and expecting staff to pick-up the pieces. I’m just gonna tell them ‘how it is’.”
  • “Erik, our staff has let us down and not provided the necessary leadership during these tough economic times. I’m afraid the board will just need to look at making draconian cuts and muddle through these tough times.”
  • “Erik, donors are cutting their charitable giving during these tough economic times. So, the only thing left to do is tell donors and anyone who will listen that our agency is on the brink of closing its doors if people don’t start stepping up.”
  • “Erik, I know we need to invest heavily in capacity building activities during this economic down turn if we have any chance at making it out the other side. However, I just know that the board isn’t up for this kind of work at this time, and I won’t use my influence to push for something that doesn’t have legs.”
  • “Erik, I refuse to invest in ‘planning’ activities because they just don’t work. We once wrote this amazing plan, and it just ended up on the shelf collecting dust.”
  • Erik, fundraising is the board’s job, and I am hesitant to offer my opinion on what needs to be done because then it becomes ‘my idea’. And if ‘my idea’ falls short, then it just becomes one more reason for the board to fire me. Remember . . . board volunteers don’t fire themselves, they always fire the executive director.”

I understand that tough economic times has a chilling effect on leadership, but your only chance at surviving these strange and new times is by eating an extra bowl of Wheaties in the morning and showing up for work ready to take some smart risks and actively lead. Here are a few observations and suggestions I have for the non-profit community as my “listening tour” comes to a close:

  1. My kindergarten teacher always taught me that “telling people” isn’t very effective if you want them to be your friend. I suggest sharpening your listening skills and do more asking than telling when it comes to engaging donors, volunteers and board members.
  2. The “blame game” is an old and tired game. If the board is unsatisfied with the agency’s performance and is feels inclined to play this game, my advice tot hose board volunteers is skip it, save your breath, fire the executive director (because you know you’re going to do it regardless of what anyone tells you), and get on with the business with digging out of your hole. Brutal? Sure it is, and I’m uncomfortable with the recommendation. However, how many times have you seen board and staff struggle through tough times with lots of finger-pointing and it all worked out “happily ever after”??? Never! So, be decisive and move on to what is important — survival. By the way, after the hatchet job and search for a new leader, it is probably important the board turn the mirror on itself, dust off the guillotine and quickly get rid of non-performing, poor fundraising members. I suspect many of those soon to be headless board volunteers were leading the charge to fire the executuve director. Vive Le France!
  3. Pointing the finger at donors is the quickest way to lose a finger. I don’t care if it is an individual, corporation, foundation or government agency. I’ve seen “the little boy who cried wolf” fundraising strategy work once, but it gets more difficult to fundraise the more you use this tactic. Of course, the reason for the fast diminishing return is because no one likes to invest their charitable giving in what they perceive to be a “sinking ship”. Stay positive and double down on stewardship efforts. People like to see the good things their contributions helped produce. So, show it to them.
  4. Written plans that fall short are most likely the result of: a) a poorly designed planning process that did not appropriately ‘engage’ those you needed to step forward during the¬†action plans part of the process, b) thin-skinned leadership who didn’t like what they saw during the evaluation phase and dismissed the call to action by putting their heads in the sand, or c) a poorly designed implementation tools (e.g. committee work plans, staff performance plans, dashboards, scorecards, etc). Don’t toss one of your few ‘engagement tools’ out the window. Instead, double down on do it differently and better!
  5. Attention agency staff: If you find yourself treading water and paralyzed by fear of failure, then please do the honorable thing and resign. I don’t say this to be mean, but board volunteers need strong leaders who know how to LEAD. With leadership, sometimes comes failure. Right? So, don’t be the “Emperor who walks into the room without any clothes on“. (Please accept my apology for this last YouTube link. It was salty and unprofessional, but it was sooooo funny I just had to share it because this uncomfortable and funny video is exactly the same feeling we all share when a non-profit staff person is paralyzed and unwilling yet pretending to lead)

I could go on and on, but I’ve gone on too long. Please use the comment box below and share a story on how you are “king” of your non-profit castle and not a “coward”. How are you investing in capacity building efforts? How are you engaging others who seem to be stuck in neutral during these tough times? Please weigh-in because we can all learn from each other. Your words can also serve as inspiration to others who are struggling.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847|


  1. Can’t comment on the blog, it hits to close to home. However, that “Emperor” video was hysterical. I subscribed to the YouTube channel for alerts.

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