Nonprofits Need Time to Think

by Todd Cohen

In the face of unprecedented storm and stress in the charitable marketplace, nonprofits need to be thinking smarter about how to work better.

While taking time to think about how to improve operations and programs must seem like a luxury these days, it has become an urgent necessity.

Innovation does not have to produce a groundbreaking new program or business process.

It can be as simple as rededicating an organization to its core mission through client services and a back-office that are streamlined and highly focused on tracking and achieving results.

Getting back to basics, in fact, can be precisely the innovation that many nonprofits need most.

But whether it involves pioneering a new program or improving a tried-and-true business process, innovation requires thought, which first requires commitment and support from a nonprofit’s funders, board and CEO.

Yet as often as not, if not more so, that kind of investment and leadership for nonprofits can be absent without leave.

Far too many funders and boards are clueless about the needs of the organizations they support and oversee, unwilling even to try to find out what their problems are, and too passive or inept to take action if they do happen to stumble on the fact that their organizations are in trouble.

And far too many CEOs try to run their organizations by enabling if not demanding business as usual, and by controlling information instead of sharing it with staff members or encouraging them to think for themselves and work with one another to identify and solve problems.

The corporate culture at too many nonprofits, in short, is akin to that of government agencies or other public institutions in its mediocrity, its dysfunction and its reinforcement of problems by ignoring them or denying they exist.

Far too many nonprofits take employees for granted, treating them like hired help who are supposed to follow orders, and not think, take chances or question decisions.

That culture of dysfunction also works to crush original thinking before it even has a prayer of beginning to sprout.

Funders, nonprofit trade groups and consultants also have become obsessed with the idea of collaboration, an idea that they have pushed on nonprofits, which in turn have paid lip service to collaboration through seemingly endless meetings that result in few if any actual decisions or results.

None of these approaches are strategies designed to foster the innovation nonprofits need if they are going to survive and thrive.

Two recent articles in The New York Times underscored the value and critical role of individual thinking in powering innovation.

In “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” Susan Cain wrote on Jan. 15 that research “strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

And in “True Innovation,” Jon Gertner wrote on Feb. 2 that the success of Bell Labs, the legendary research-and-development arm of AT&T that for many years was “the most innovative scientific organization in the world”, was rooted in the freedom and time its leader gave employees to create, and to help one another create.

While most nonprofits are not in business to produce innovative research or products, the nonprofit sector overall serves both as civic society’s safety net, and also as its research-and-development arm.

Nonprofits, in short, serve as labs for developing and delivering strategies to address the symptoms as well as the causes of our most pressing social and global problems.

Yet instead of investing in efforts to build up their organizational capacity, funders and donors traditionally have expected nonprofits to do more with less.

Nonprofit boards, in turn, and too often CEOs, swallow those expectations whole and demand the same of their staff, finding it easier to pander to funders and donors than to speak honestly to them about any capacity problems at their organizations.

Funders, donors, boards and CEOS find it even easier to justify their unrealistic demands of staff in today’s grim economy, which has escalated demand for services from nonprofits while compounding the financial and operating pressures they face.

The warped logic of funders and donors seems to be that the nonprofits they support should stretch every dollar they receive to make an impact on clients, rather than making any investment in thinking or planning, even thought that kind of investment can lead to improvements that will better serve clients.

And the sad logic of boards and CEOs seems to be to pander to their donors and funders for fear that questioning their unrealistic expectations or speaking honestly about organizational problems will risk the loss of their funding.

But while they can be quick to posture and issue directives, funders, donors, boards and often CEOs are not the people who actually must deliver services and run the back-office.

The job of actually doing all that work lies with the staff, and the pressure they face leaves little time to think.

Time to think, however, is fundamental to improving an organization and the services it provides.

So nonprofit boards and CEOs, and the donors and funders who support their organizations, need to find ways to encourage and foster creative thinking by the staff.

Google, for example, encourages its engineers to spend 20 percent of their work time, or one day a week, on projects that interest them, creative thinking that has sown the seeds for some of the company’s big new services, such as Gmail and Google News.

As numerous studies have shown, the ailing economy has pushed nonprofits to the edge, and a growing number are sinking fast or shutting down.

Yet while it may seem like an indulgence in these tough times, taking the time to think creatively is essential for the health and future of individual nonprofits, the charitable marketplace and the social economy.

Funders and donors, as well as nonprofit boards and CEOs, need to step up, show true leadership, and find ways to stimulate and tap the creative thinking of nonprofit staff.

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