In his September 15th blog (http://sethgodin.typepad.com) , Seth Godin said two things that really resonated. The first was his opening sentence where he took nonprofits to task for identifying ourselves as what we are not. Defining what we are is something many of us have a problem with.
The second thing he said was that nonprofits abhor change. I agree, but I wouldn’t focus just on nonprofits. And I certainly wouldn’t—as Seth Godin does—focus on the fact that many nonprofits (but not nearly as many as he claims) are not utilizing social networking well. That hardly proves his case.
What is real, however, is the paralysis that hits too many nonprofits when faced with doing things that make them uncomfortable. Far better, I suppose, to wring your hands and (as Godin aptly points out) complain about lack of resources than to actually go out and do something proactive about it. But I don’t necessarily think that social networking is the answer.
An answer? Sure. But at best it is a way to increase the number and frequency of small donors. This can be huge as, yes, the Obama campaign showed. But the truth is that most nonprofits are not national in scope; many aren’t even of concern three blocks from where they have offices. Pareto’s principle, which in fundraising terms says that 80% of the dollars raised come from 20% of the donors, is still pretty viable. What that means that is that social networking can be a great boost to your annual campaign, but probably won’t provide enough funding for those changes that Godin advocates.
This is not to say that nonprofits shouldn’t engage in social networking. Of course they should outreach in every way possible. But I think that the change that is necessary in the sector will come from very different actions.
Which brings us back to Godin’s first sentence. How we define ourselves is key. How we tell our stories is also important. But stories without purpose are not much more than entertainment. What is too often missing is that strategic, long view of what we do and how we do it, now and in the future. Nonprofits tend to be better at that from a programmatic point of view than they administratively and, especially, when it comes to resource development.
Fundraising is too often not at the table when the party is being planned but is expected to somehow come up with all the presents. If fundraising were truly infused throughout the organization, if planning took into consideration not just how much something will cost but where those funds must come from, then and only then will nonprofits be able to systematically and continually find the funding they need.
Once nonprofits can support themselves and their programs, then they can begin to focus on what they are and understand than “nonprofit” (or not-for-profit”) is actually a positive. Unlike for profit businesses that exist to make a profit, we have been organized for other purposes, which may be charitable (relating to generosity), educational, scientific. And this is nothing that should make any of us who are committed to this sector feel ashamed.
Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her online classes will soon be available at <a href=