Non-profit professionals need to take a page from the Wizard of Oz

oz the great and powerfulThis last weekend the Redbox near my house finally had a copy of “Oz: The Great and Powerful” in stock. I love the Wizard of Oz and couldn’t wait to see the prequel to this iconic film. My childhood is full of memories of watching the original movie around Thanksgiving time every year. I also remember all of those Wicked Witch induced nightmares that would follow. However, this time around . . . I walked away with some non-profit and fundraising thoughts.

Without spoiling anything for those of you who haven’t seen “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” it should come as no surprise that there are parallels between the original movie and the prequel. For example, in both movies as the Wizard and Dorothy make their way to the Emerald City for the first time, they meet up with a cast of characters who join them on the journey and play valuable roles down the road.

Another parallel comes at the end of the movie. In the original film, the wizard presents “The Three Gifts“:

  • The Scarecrow get his diploma in lieu of an actual brain
  • The Cowardly Lion gets his medal in lieu of actual courage
  • The Tin Man gets his heart shaped clock in lieu of an actual heart

A similar scene occurs at the end of “Oz: The Great and Powerful“.

Some people might conclude cynically that these are acts of a powerless person who is posing as a great and powerful wizard and relying upon his background as a con man and traveling circus magician back in Kansas. I am not of this opinion and invite you to refresh your memory of how things went down by watching this short YouTube clip of the scene in question:


What I see is a smart man who knows his limitations and is doing a masterful job of working within those limitations to give deserving people what they want and need.

While watching the parallel scene in “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” I had a fundraising revelation. It was rooted in a conversation I had with a fundraising professional last week. She was concerned about a few board volunteers who are always chirping about how their non-profit organization needs to be run more like a for-profit business and how greater attention must be given to concepts like “return on investment” for donors.

While program outcomes and community impact are on the lips of many non-profit professionals nowadays, the reality is that not all non-profit organizations are the same. For example, it is probably easier for a non-profit youth development agency to demonstrate outcomes and impact than a domestic violence shelter for women. It is also most likely easier for a non-profit health clinic to show ROI than an art museum.

ignore the man behind the curtainIf your agency is not in a position where you can make your donors’ wishes come true, then you better have skilled staff who possess talents and skills like The Wizard.

Just to be clear . . . I am NOT suggesting that you need to hire snake oil salesmen. What I am suggesting is that you identify and hire talent staff who:

  1. understand what you donors need and want
  2. understand what the agency is capable of and not capable of providing
  3. have the ability to identify similar things that can be provided in lieu of what the donors desire

In the movie, The Wizard knows that he can’t give the Scarecrow a real brain. So, he gives him a college diploma instead. He also gives a wonderful explanation of why it is as good as having an actual brain.  In the world of philanthropy, your non-profit staff may not have good impact data on how much less violent the world is for women because of your shelter, but you do have wonderful stories to share with donors about how for one night you made a world of difference in one woman’s life.

If you go back and watch that Wizard of Oz YouTube clip again, I suspect you will see many important skill sets — traits —

tin man heart

characteristics being demonstrated by The Wizard that are equally important for fundraising professionals and non-profit staff:

  • persuasion
  • well-spoken and clear in thought
  • thinking fast on your feet
  • great storyteller
  • showmanship

On a side note, I also just love that scene in the movie because of how it relates to our work as fundraising and non-profit professionals. Did you catch what the wizard said to the Tin Man when presenting him with his pseudo-heart? If not, here is the quick transcript:

“Back where I come from there are men who do nothing all day but good deeds. They are called phil….er…..phil…er…er….good-deed-doers and their hearts are no bigger than yours, but they have one thing you haven’t got! A testimonial! Therefore, in consideration of your kindness, I take pleasure at this time in presenting you with a small token of our esteem and affection. And remember, my sentimental friend, that a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.

LOL . . . phil….er…..phil…er…er….good-deed-doers . . . I LOVE IT!!!

Does your non-profit organization have a “wizard” working behind the curtain of your donor communications program? How are you determining what donors want to see and hear? How are you still giving them what they want when it may not be realistic? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts. We can all learn from each other!

For those of you who are big Wizard of Oz fans like me, I wrote a multi-part series of blog posts two years ago with a Wizard of Oz theme. I will re-blog those posts this week. I hope you enjoy this week’s trip down the yellow brick road.

Here’s to your health!

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

Outcomes, impact and criminal prosecution — A harbinger for the non-profit community?

jailAttention non-profit professionals . . . are you paying attention to the news? There is a news story developing in Atlanta, and it may be a harbinger of things to come for non-profit agencies who take money from the government. This made-for-cable-television-drama involves a school superintendent, dozens of teachers and administrators, and a conspiracy to change thousands of standardized tests. All of this was done in the name of maintaining government pass-through funding.

Click here or on the YouTube window below to get a better explanation of what is going on, and then we’ll talk about why I believe this is relevant to the non-profit sector.


When I heard this story, my mind immediately turned to the countless number of non-profit organizations that are struggling to develop a community impact and program outcomes model. The intent behind these efforts usually include:

  • evolving with their local United Way community impact initiative,
  • becoming more competitive when it comes to foundation and government grant writing, and
  • being able to show individual and corporate donors a return on their investment.

Of course, one of the central questions at the center of this struggle (as well as at the center of the No Child Left Behind debate) is:

“Who cares if test scores go up if it doesn’t result in solving the greater community need?”

For example, there is some evidence that shows students doing better on standardized tests, but more and more of incoming college students are enrolling in remedial classes their freshman year because they didn’t learn what they needed to learn prior to applying for college.

Isn’t it the same question for non-profit organizations?

How many youth development agencies are running child obesity programming with government funding and using pre- and post-test methods to determine if the participant was able to digest and regurgitate the program curriculum. Of course, knowing that I shouldn’t eat Cheetos and actually not eating them are two different things. Right? So, what is the donor really paying for and are we measuring the right things?

The bigger question being begged by the Atlanta school district news story is:

“If we tie student test performance to school funding, then aren’t we creating a situation where institutions are tempted to bend rules and even cheat the system?”

As I asked earlier, isn’t it the same question for non-profit organizations?

Do I believe there are non-profit organizations who “fudge” their program outcomes evaluation in order to keep their United Way happy? Sure I do!

Do I also believe there are non-profit organizations who do the same thing with their government grant deliverables? Yes, I believe there are a few.

You can chalk this blog post up to my cynicism. Or you can use it to ward off temptation to game the system. I suggest the later and not the former because there isn’t any difference between what the educators in Atlanta did and a non-profit organization misrepresenting its outcomes data to a local, state or federal funding source.

If you buy into this line of reasoning, then keep your eyes on the Atlanta news story because I predict the plot will thicken and jail time could be in a few people’s future.

Does your agency have policies in place that help protect against any of this happening (e.g. ethics policy, whistleblower policy, document destruction policy, etc)?  Are these policies just on paper or are their routinely used? Does your organization have shared values? If so, how are those values integrated into the hiring process to ensure that you’re hiring ethical employees? Do you believe the Atlanta school story is a harbinger or am I just over reacting? Please weigh-in using the comment box below. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

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

Does your non-proft organization make a difference? Americans don’t think so!

While driving around doing some errands yesterday, I was listening to sports talk radio WSCR 670 AM in Chicago. One of the radio hosts was talking about how teachers make a difference in people’s lives. He knew this to be true because his mother is a teacher and every year countless high school and college kids return home, visit their favorite teachers, and tell them so.

The radio host went on to share that he used to have doubts about the impact his work has other people’s lives; however, his opinion recently changed after one of the station’s listeners emailed him. The listener was diagnosed with cancer and needed to complete a rigorous chemotherapy regiment to find his way back to health. While that treatment path is a tough road to hoe, the listener scheduled his treatments during the this radio host’s show and credits him with getting him though some very tough times.

It dawned on me that many of us strive to make a difference in someone’s life or the world around us. In fact, I think it is at the core of the human condition and the non-profit sector, which got me thinking . . .

Does your non-profit organization make a difference?

I am currently reading Dan Pallotta’s book — “Uncharitable” — and it has been challenging my non-profit belief systems. In a nutshell, he argues that the non-profit sector is extremely under-resourced and constrained by laws and cultural beliefs that don’t apply to for-profit corporations. As a result, non-profits are seen as ineffective and are in many instances actually ineffective.

Does that sound overly harsh and upsetting? In the opening pages of his book, he eggs his critics on and encourages all of us to take a look around the non-profit sector and our community and ask questions such as:

  • Why do things seem to stay pretty much the same?
  • Why have our cancer charities not found a cure for cancer?
  • Why have our homeless shelters not solved the problem of homelessness?
  • Why do children still go hunger on the streets of America?

While Pallotta ends up blaming the system (not the people in the system) and points to the lack of resources, apparently many Americans aren’t as charitable and Pallotta points that out by sharing the following information from various opinion surveys:

“A study released in 2008 by Ellison Research showed that ‘most Americans believe non-profit organizations and charities are not financially efficient enough in their work.’ A 2004 Brookings Institution study found that ‘nearly one out of three respondents expressed little or no confidence in charitable groups, and only 11% said they believe that charities do a very good job of spending their money wisely.’ Seventy percent of people surveyed in a 2008 NYU study said that charities ‘waste a great deal’ or a ‘fair amount’ of money.”

As the radio show host said yesterday, all of us wake up every morning and strive to make a difference or at least make our lives matter. Pallotta posed some tough questions, but they aren’t out-of-bounds. The surveys cited by Pallotta paint a stark picture of what many Americans think of the non-profit sector, which includes your non-profit agency. In this context, it should come as no surprise that the average annual donor turnover rate in America hovers around 50%.

So, how do you know that you and your organization is making a difference? How are you sharing that with your donors and your community? Are you seeing any difference in your donor loyalty rates? Please use the comment section to tell us what you’re measuring to prove everyone wrong. Or are you having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning because you aren’t finding that sense of satisfaction and fulfullment from your non-profit job?

Over the next few days, I will share a few more observations from Dan Pallotta’s book “Uncharitable;” however, I encourage everyone to buy a copy of the book. It will make you mad, but I think it is healthy to have your beliefs challenged every now and again.

Here’s to your health!

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