The Nonprofit Side of Lean and Mean

Sometimes I wonder how some of these nonprofits survive.

There are development professionals and executive directors who aren’t afraid to ask for money, but they aren’t willing to do what it takes to manage it more efficiently.

It’s quite the conundrum if you ask me.

My first experience with a 501(c)(3) came in 2002 a few months after I lost a high-paying IT job. 911 was unkind to the tech world and lots of people were getting laid off. I was no exception.

With all my extra free time, I decided to do a little more volunteering, delivering food to a homeless shelter on Saturdays. I had a conversation with the executive director and she asked if I could help manage the Christmas toy drive.

She was willing to pay me $10 an hour.

I thought I could learn something valuable — more valuable than what they were willing to pay me. And when I look back, there were so many wonderful conversations with the folks who lived there. I really did try my best to understand and apply what I learned to the blessings I earned. We shared meals at the shelter, and prayed together at lunchtime. Clients helped me sort through musty clothes, finding the right pair of slacks or a bright-colored coat they might wear to church on Sunday.

But as the gifts and toys rolled in, something strange happened.

The first people in line for the shiny new toys and bikes were the paid administrative staff.

I was so outraged at this, I asked for a meeting with the executive director. She was a pastor’s wife who told me, “But we’ve always done it this way.”

I shook my head, walked out, headed back to the corporate world and never looked back.

Until now.

Twelve years later, I still see a great deal of entitlement in the nonprofit ranks. The difference is, now that I’m educated about why that is, I want to do something about it.

I have been working on my master’s degree part-time for many years and decided maybe I could take what I learned in the corporate world and apply it to nonprofit management. A lot of people think it’s a great idea, so I will let you know how it goes. I am not convinced I will ever give up my corporate clients, for these are the people who understand. They don’t get miffed when I tell them I need to earn a living, and I will try to help them when I can.

I enjoy working for companies that place a value on hard work! So it is difficult to work for the nonprofit here in Cleveland that is willing to pay its executive director a six-figure salary, and then ask me — in the same breath — if I would consider offering my grantwriting services for free. If this is not entitlement, I don’t know what is.

My plea for better managers is not popular in a world of visionaries. When you are continuously funded through grants, donations and handouts, but you never worked for a for-profit company or gave it a go as an entrepreneur, you can’t understand how the other side works.

I consider the recent trend in crowdfunding a real good example of this. There seems to be a plethora of people begging their friends and strangers to fund a hobby, a dream or whatever you want to call it.

Some of these initiatives are better-suited for someone who knows how to manage that in-flow of free cash and turn it into something sustainable. So when the idea doesn’t survive beyond Year Two, should it surprise any of us?

What has happened to the good old-fashioned business plan? With so much failure, entitlement and mismanagement, a mission statement is not enough. Maybe I get my work ethic from my depression-era father who kept warm bricks at the bottom of his bed, just so he could sleep at night. Someone needs to value hard work and smart business, and I am more than willing to learn from the experts, my professors and anyone else that has a proven business model.

My goal is to help nonprofits start thinking like for-profit enterprises. I learned a lot from my professors at Case Western Reserve University, and have written about hybrid opportunities and explored best practices. Other times, I’ve continued to learn from for-profit entities that value lean and mean in an evolutionary supply chain model.

Either way you slice it, there is work to be done. I can understand why watchdog groups are demanding accountability, as are state attorney generals, independent researchers and other civic activists.

Our work should — and will continue. But let’s try to be more diligent, shall we?