What’s Really Wrong with Non-Profits?

You may have been fortunate enough to have missed Rush Limbaugh’s angry tirade last week against the non-profit sector and the “lazy idiots” and “rapists” who fill its ranks.

It’s disturbing to think there are people out there – millions of people — who tune into this buffoon on purpose, and share his views and are infected by his hysteria.

What’s even stranger is that — though I am loath to admit it — Rush got me thinking.

Having worked in the non-profit sector (as an educator) and for the non-profit sector (as a consultant) for most of my adult life, I have my own ideas about what’s really wrong with non-profits.

Here is my top-ten list. I won’t pretend that this list of troubles is exhaustive, and I admit up front that these are sweeping statements. My aim is simply to gather my thoughts and, if I’m lucky, start a conversation.

1. Many non-profits are unable to say what they are really about, or confuse their programs with their core mission.

2. Non-profits that begin from small, inspired efforts have a hard time figuring out how big they should grow, how small they should stay, or how to right-size themselves.

3. Many non-profits are founded by a charismatic leader, and remain captive to his or her charisma; but to flourish, the non-profit may require another organizational model.

4. Non-profits don’t do a great job of capturing knowledge, turning knowledge into assets, and sharing knowledge across the organization or with other organizations engaged in the same work; but they should.

5. People come into the non-profit organization inspired and ready to change the world, and become (at best) competent managers.

6. Many non-profits believe managers with corporate skill sets or consultants versed in management theory can create greater organizational efficiencies; but they too often simply don’t get the culture of the non-profit organization.

7. Non-profits lack the entrepreneurial audacity of social entrepreneurs, and tend to be risk averse.

8. For the sake of being inclusive and making sure everybody has a say, non-profits will often forgo the best ideas and the smartest choices.

9. Many non-profit organizations confuse capacity with resources, and resources with funding.

10. Non-profits tend to be captive to their history, because so many non-profits were formed as a solution to a particular problem, or were built in a single great effort, and it’s hard to move beyond that founding moment.

I wonder if my list resonates with the experiences of others. I wonder, too, what’s missing from it, and which non-profit organizations, in your view, really and consistently get it right.

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