What can your non-profit learn from the U.S. presidential primary elections?

huckabeeFor me, sometimes people speak the truth and it hits me in such a way that I have a hard time getting it out of my head. It rolls around like a pinball in my brain, and the only way for me to stop the experience is to write about it. Well, this happened again on January 28, 2016 at approximately 10:15 pm while I was watching a Special Edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews. It occurred during an interview with Mike Huckabee, when the former presidential candidate said something close to the following (and if memory serves me correctly, I think it was in response to a question about the primary election system):

“Nothing changes. The train is being driven by the donors.”

(Disclaimer: I scribbled this down within 30 seconds of hearing it. I might have the quotation slightly wrong, but I’m really darn close. I went looking for the transcripts of the show, but couldn’t find anything online.)
(Another disclaimer: I plan on exercising tremendous restraint today. I won’t share political thoughts on topics such as campaign finance reform, Citizens United, Super PACs, etc. So, please feel free to continue reading if you are interested in how this ends up being a (hopefully) thought-provoking blog post on non-profits.)
The first thought that ran through my brain after hearing Huckabee’s commentary about the influence of donors was . . . “Wow! I can’t believe he just said that. How incredibly honest of him.
The second thought that ran through my brain was . . . “Ugh! Shouldn’t it be voters and not donors who are driving this train?
My next thought surprised me . . . “I wonder how many non-profit organizations are being driven by donors?
I know how easy this question is to dismiss. If I’ve heard a non-profit soapbox speech once, I’ve heard it hundred of times about how someone’s organization is sooooooo mission-focused or veeeeeeeery cleint-focused. While I am not casting doubt on these claims, Huckabee’s utterance got me thinking.
Have I seen individual donors come to the table with their checkbook and an idea they want funded? Yes, I sure have.
Have I seen individual donors place strange restrictions on their charitable giving in an effort to drive an agenda (sometimes a political or religious agenda that has little to do with the actual organization they are giving money to)? Yes, I sure have.
What about private and corporate foundations and their published “giving guidelines“? Is this sometimes an exercise in control? Agenda setting? Managing corporate liability? I think it could be viewed that way by some people.
What about the United Way’s Community Impact model? While I see it as generally positive, isn’t the desired effect to align charitable giving around a community’s top socials needs and gaps in order to solve those problems? That’s the way this United Way donor views it.
Before any of you overreact, let me say the following:

  • I am not suggesting donors are evil people with bad intentions
  • I am not saying foundations shouldn’t have giving guidelines
  • I am definitely NOT attacking the United Way

However . . .
I do see some non-profit organizations starved for money and engaged in what I would characterize as “chasing dollars“. I’ve even seen some organizations go so far as changing their mission statement, broadening it to a point of being all encompassing, and resigned to asking and applying for funding they have no business doing. I’ve also seen “scope creep” bankrupt an organization and drive it out-of-business.
I’m going to end this blog post here because my intention wasn’t to get on a soapbox today. My intent was to give you a mental poke and get you thinking about some of the following questions:

  • As Mike Huckabee framed the question, “Who is driving your organizational train?” And how confident are you in your answer?
  • What percentage of your revenue streams come from government funding? If it is greater than 50%, then can you honestly say your funder(s) don’t have a significant impact on the direction of your organization along with countless other things? (e.g. staffing ratios, program offering, outcomes measurement, etc)
  • Are you client-driven? Community impact focused? Mission-focused? What facts can you point to that affirm this belief? If I asked your board the same question what answer would they give? And would it match your answer?
  • What processes or organizational structures do you have in place to assure you aren’t simply “chasing dollars“?
  • Can you think of the last time you were faced with making a decision about a contribution being driven by a donor’s agenda rather than your agenda? If so, what happened? How did you handle it? Who did you consult?
  • Generally speaking, how much INFLUENCE do your donors have with you, your board, and your overall organization? Regardless of your answer, how do you feel about your answer?

As I always say, we can all learn from each other. Please scroll down and share your thoughts and experiences in the comment box.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC