Charities Need to Trust Themselves

by Todd Cohen

A virulent strain of strategic paralysis threatens to afflict much of the charitable marketplace.

Deeply wounded by unprecedented financial distress, and looking for a quick fix, many charities are becoming smitten if not obsessed with trendy, philanthropically-correct management ideas peddled by nonprofit trade groups, consultants, foundations and academic researchers.

So in trying to cope with escalating demand for services and an increasingly grim market for charitable investment, many nonprofits are trying to swallow, without digesting, big concepts like logic models, market research, metrics, performance evaluation, social media, entrepreneurialism, and return on investment.

Any or all of those and other concepts, if they make sense for a particular nonprofit and are planned carefully and applied strategically, might help an organization inform the way it works and help it survive and thrive.

But many nonprofits simply grab onto those ideas in a panic and without scrutiny or thinking through their implications, including their true costs and possible downside, as well as how to put them into practice in the most productive way.

Strategic theories, whether borrowed from the world of business or developed in think-tanks or on university campuses, are no substitute for street smarts and common sense.

No matter what a consultant advises, a funder demands, or a study or textbook prescribes, nonprofits need to think on their own about how to cope in an economy that is deeply damaged, and a social and global environment that is evolving quickly in the face of multiple crises, sweeping demographic change, and rapid advances in technology.

A management theory or formula certainly can help inform the decisions a nonprofit makes about how to improve its services, operations or fundraising.

But no two organizations or sets of business challenges are alike, market forces continually shift, and theory is little more than a guess until put into practice.

Many nonprofits are fortunate to have experienced and gifted managers and leaders who can help their organizations set a vision, build a team, think for themselves, understand their challenges, and identify, sort through and select their most promising options and partners.

But far too many charities are willing to put their brains, experience and instincts on hold while embracing well-meaning but often vague and half-baked ideas prescribed by trade groups, consultants and funders who are quick to preach their pet theories but do not stand in the shoes of those charities and will not have to live with the consequences of the advice they give.

Instead of blind faith in these self-anointed experts, who often are clueless about or complicit in the cut-throat competition and shameless cronyism that corrupt the charitable marketplace, nonprofits need to trust their own ability to find their way out of the economic gloom and doom.

The best hope for charities is to have faith in their own vision and judgment.

Todd Cohen is editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal; reprinted with permission.