Boards of Directors

A Challenge Facing Nonprofit Strategy – Caring Too Much

Anyone who has been involved in a board conversation or a management discussion within a nonprofit has faced the following question:

Do we do what is best for the cause or best for the organization?

This is a question that is unique to the nonprofit sector.  When comparing the question to the for-profit sector it might be something like this:

Do we do what is best for the customer or best for the business?

Many may answer the first option in both cases.  However, in the nonprofit sector, the questions can be more extreme.  In fact, I’ve seen it happen first hand.  The question might be something like:

Do we do this good thing for the cause even though it puts our organization at serious financial risk?

And in for-profit terms it may read something like:

Do we reduce our prices and increase our costs to improve our image even though it would make us unprofitable?

In the for-profit world, most companies would NOT choose to decrease prices AND increase costs in order to improve their image, especially when the company is suffering financially already.  But you know what?  Nonprofits choose this path all the time.

Nonprofits, many of which are struggling financially and barely making payroll, STILL choose to invest their limited resources in a social cause that promises no return.  The reason for this is simple – they believe that they care MORE than everyone else.

If any of you have ever served on a nonprofit board, you have probably experienced the extremely passionate board member or members that no matter what, they have to do what is ‘right’.

That passion, while admirable, gets in the way of the long-term strategy and long-term results of the nonprofit in question.

One of my personal nonprofit passions relates to animal welfare.  In fact, a large portion of my quantitative and qualitative research has focused on this particular sector.  Aside from my personal passion for the humane treatment of animals, this sector is fairly homogenous, which makes it easy to study.  In other words, most animal shelters function with the same basic business model: adopting animals.  Whereas, health organization or education organizations can all have different types of business models, animal shelters all pretty much function the same way.

This post, while the result of my research on this sector, highlights a major finding that applies to the entire nonprofit sector.

In one of my interviews with animal shelter CEOs, one particular CEO talked about the challenge of passion getting in the way of progress.  It is important to point out that this CEO, was CEO of a $36M+ animal welfare organization.  This was not your typical animal shelter, this was one of the top 15 animal welfare organizations in the United States.  They seemed to be doing SOMETHING right.  His comments are worth sharing, and are posted below.

Before reading the comments, it may be helpful to explain that in the animal welfare industry, there are two philosophical camps: no-kill and open admission.  This is an extremely simplified description, so please note that there are many hybrid models at work also.

No-Kill Shelters

A no-kill shelter does not euthanize their animals. When a no-kill shelter is full, they simply refuse to accept any more animals.

Open Admission

An open admission shelter works like a revolving door.  When one animal comes in, the animal that has been there the longest is euthanized to make space for the newly arrived animal.

This is a highly charged philosophical debate facing the animal welfare industry.  The CEO comments on how they tackle it below:

“Now this may sound a little strange, but animal welfare is a lot like religion.  How many different religions are there in the world?  Hundreds?  Thousands?  And they are all trying to do the same thing – they are all trying to get to heaven.  They may call it something different, but they are all trying to get there.  It is the same thing with us.  We want to end animal suffering, end animal killing, and give every animal a home.  However, we’ve all selected a different path.  And, just like many religions, if you are not taking the same path, you are wrong.” 

“The animal welfare industry is highly emotionally charged.   Everyone cares more than we do.”

“But I’ve realized that it is not just about us.  So, we don’t care, or rather, we accept that everyone cares more than we do.”  

“Now does everyone play well?   No, but we work with all but two of the groups around us and they are part of this alliance and I mean we work well with vets, rescue organizations, everyone.  We do this by making sure that we do not use certain terminology, like No Kill or Kill.  We just don’t use it.  Some organizations will not want to work with another organization because they are kill.  Well, we don’t even use it because no one on my team is killer.  We are not killers.” 

“Oh and those other organizations that doesn’t want to work with us… well, they have sent their staff over here for training.  We are blessed with a great team, from the board, volunteers, staff, development, and the community. We make sure everyone gets credit.”

This CEO essentially took emotion out of the equation.

What might happen if a nonprofit board of directors took this stance?  How many other nonprofits might they be able to collaborate with?  What kinds of discussion might ensue among a board of directors if ‘passion’ was not allowed to be a factor in decision making?

In the for-profit world, surely passion can sway the development of a new product or technology, but the financial and feasibility aspect of it will most of the time trump passion.  It is somewhat of a step 1, step 2 conversation:

Step 1: What is it we are trying to do?

Step 2: Can we feasibly do this and still build on long term sustainability?

Many times, passion for a cause gets in the way of answering Step 2 honestly.  I’ve seen it happen first hand.

I would be interested in hearing how a board meeting went when the first principle of the meeting was simply an admittance of: “My passion for the mission will not get in the way of the long-term outcome of the organization.”

In fact, I might make my board members write that statement down and sign it. I’d also join that board in a heart beat.

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