The Problem With (Many) Nonprofits

I want to leave the world a better place than when I entered it. A lot of us do, and in my generation (and beyond), a lot of us work for nonprofits. In fact, I spent the better part of 10 years working for and with nonprofit organizations in a number of different capacities and roles. And the truth is, I experienced the same failures over and over and over, at nonprofit organizations of different types.

A few nights ago, I was talking to a friend about a nonprofit who brought someone on to a website project because they wanted a fancier website, yet they didn't have the kind of rapport with people in the community they were trying to serve in order to make any kind of actual programming successful. If I had a dollar for every time I've dealt with someone at a nonprofit who wanted something bigger and fancier that was completely irrelevant and didn't at all further the mission, I would be relaxing in a hut in Bora Bora at this very moment instead of using the free Wifi at the grocery store to write this blog post.

Disclaimer: I'm a photographer, creative thinker and passionate person who wants to change the world. I am not a scholar, and I am merely one person who wants to make a difference. I don't have all the answers -- just some ideas and food for thought. This blog post is intended for nonprofit organizations whose missions are benevolent or charitable, or exist to make social change.

I created a list of problems I consistently experienced with nonprofit organizations, and I believe these are some key things holding them back on achieving their missions.

1. You don't need a fancy website with Flash graphics.

Really, I promise you -- you don't. Stop using Flash graphics (many mobile devices do not support them, they have not been a best practice for at least 5 years, and they will not help your mission or your bottom line). In fact, please stop hiring web development firms that cost tens of thousands of dollars. There are so many tools to help you create a professional web presence -- Squarespace, Wordpress and so many more.

2. You need to seek out and hire people in marginalized communities.

Earlier this year, the Washington Blade ran an article called "How much do LGBT organization leaders make?" What struck me even more than the monetary aspect of the article (some of the executives on the list, in my opinion, were under-compensated) was the lack of diversity in leadership. Unsurprisingly, white men seemed to be the majority, with a lack of people of color, transgender and gender non-conforming people and people with disabilities. (Though of course, all disabilities are not visible.)

Hiring people with different life experiences, especially people in communities who experience systemic oppression and are so often overlooked, will not hurt your mission -- it will help it.

3. You need to ask yourself in every decision: "How will this help move our mission forward?"

Let's use this fancy visualizer for our graphics in board meetings! Let's get a fancier website! Let's get a better logo!

Yes, how you present yourself is important -- but nonprofit organizations so often have so little resources, so prioritizing and asking yourself how these decisions will move the mission forward are so important. Sometimes, that decision might mean spending $10,000 on much needed programming to serve your communities instead of hiring that fancy design firm to rebrand your whole organization. Sometimes, it might mean that your Executive Director flies coach instead of first class. (I feel like this should be a no-brainer, but I've seen this happen enough times to make my head explode).

4. You need to commit to better business practices.

This is a big one, and maybe one of the reasons why I see a lot of nonprofits flop. Just because you are a nonprofit doesn't mean that you're not still a business. To keep the doors open, you need to have more money coming in than going out.

We need the bleeding hearts who work at nonprofits because they want to create social change -- but we also need smart business people within organizations to keep the money coming. Because it's dang near impossible to do good work without adequate funding.

5. You need to learn to accept feedback, and admit when you are wrong.

This is maybe the one that has burned me the most. Great leaders hire smart, talented people. The best leaders do, anyway -- because doesn't it look good for you when you hired a really talented, capable team who is doing amazing things? But please don't stop there. You need to trust the people you hired to do what you hired them to do. There is nothing worse than being held back by the very people that hired you to do something.

This goes, too, for the communities you serve, not just the people you hire.

6. You need to really learn to listen and hear.

We spend so much time executing our own visions, that sometimes we forget to really listen. And while it's one thing to listen, it's another thing to hear and understand what is being said.

And then see #5.