Staying Relevant In a Rapidly Changing Service Environment

Avoiding Some Common Pitfalls of Nonprofit Agencies
by David B. Marcu

While much has been said and written about successfully managing nonprofit organizations (NPO’s) it may be argued that not enough is being said and written about how not to manage NPO’s. The following are common pitfalls that NPO managers and boards should minimize and avoid.

The “Edifice Complex”

Up to date facilities are a crucial aspect of service provision in many agencies. As a result, many NPO executives and managers spend considerable amount of (necessary) time in raising funds to renovate and construct buildings. No one can argue that facilities are not a critical aspect of excellent service provision. However, many services today are community based and not tied to “bricks and mortar” facilities. With proper transportation and cellular technology, professional staff can often provide excellent services in the community without an office and without significant overhead. Those of us in the field of developing, innovating and providing multi-faceted services for persons with disability can provide supports for living, job coaching and many other types of support services without a facility.

Perhaps even more important, in our rapidly changing environment, facilities can quickly become outmoded and irrelevant to modern service provision. Our job, as NPO professional leaders, is to create facilities with considerable flexibility built-in, to accommodate the changing nature of services. Advancements and innovations should drive how we provide our services. We should never provide services using antiquated methodologies just because the use of an existing facility mandates it.

Professionals Don’t Possess Special Powers and Don’t Always Know Better

Too many of us in the evolving field of human services have long assumed that professionals know best. While it is true that professionals have received advanced training and have considerable experience, it is also true that our service recipients often can educate us about what is best for them. If professionals were once seen as “empowering” people, I would humbly suggest that we professionals have no particular “powers” to extend to others (see E. Sadan: Empowerment and Community Planning, 2004). Rather, we can and should help provide others with the tools they need to empower themselves. Again, using the field of support services for persons with disabilities as a paradigm, we professionals can provide others with the tools they need to make decisions about their own lives, but we don’t necessarily know “what is best for them.”

The Money Chase

Too often, NPO managers find themselves chasing funds, without asking a critical question: are we “dollar driven” or “mission driven?” Money is a means, not an end. It may seem obvious – but often is not – that NPO managers need to stop, take a deep breath, and ask themselves: “is this project really something we want to do? Is it really within our core competency? Does it further our organization and our mission?” Too often, NPO managers find themselves “following the dollar” and not answering these simple questions.

Transparency as a value

Looking in the mirror and seeing any imperfections is never pleasant. NPO’s must have internal controls and professional auditors (where financially feasible) who can assess procedures as well as the efficacy of such controls. While receiving audit reports can be discomforting (i.e. looking in the mirror), these reports serve to improve the quality of services and the administrative support structure and can anticipate problems before they occur.

“Coopetition”: seeing competitors as collaborators or: “we can’t necessarily do it all on our own”

Yes, NPO’s today often compete in a competitive marketplace. We compete with other NPO’s, with profit-making entities and with any others that seek a piece of the “pie” for public attention, funding and service contracts. Still, recognizing our competitive nature vis a vis other organizations doesn’t preclude cooperation when it serves all of our interests. Sharing methodologies, advocating with regard to public policy and legislation and, operating joint projects, only makes us all better at what we do. And yes, funders increasingly like to see collaboration and the efficient and creative use of their dollars to solve problems and create impact.

Learning from earlier pitfalls and from mistakes made by us and by others, helps us avoid them. It thus behooves us to recognize that excellence in service requires an open mind and a realization that we all have much to learn – and to share.

David B. Marcu is the CEO of Israel Elwyn, an organization that provides support services for children and adults with disabilities and their families. He is a past president of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services, is a member of the board of directors of the Israel Council for Social Welfare and is a member of the Professional Advisory Committee for Youth and Disabilities of “Tevet”, the employment subsidiary of the JDC.