Here We Go Again

Edward and Marcia Dawson have made incomes commensurate with those of Wall Street bankers. They are, however, not bankers but the founders of Social Vocation Services, a nonprofit social-service organization in California.

Personally, I don’t care how much money Mr. and Mrs. Dawson have made. But they seem to have done it in not such an ethical manner. That will give a certain group of people the ability to say, “Aha! Those nonprofits—they are just not trustworthy.” And that I do care about.

Nonprofits, it seems to me, get tarred with two sides of the same brush. First we are told we are not business-like enough. We’re inefficient, poorly managed, and unrealistic. On the other side, organizations that play by business rules are bashed because they are untrustworthy and care more about the bottom line than the mission they were created to fulfill.

There’s truth and falsity in both those sides. Nonprofits are businesses, and there should be an expectation that they are run professionally and well. Not that all businesses meet those criteria, but we should be striving to be the best. But as nonprofits, we are also mission-driven organizations, and that mission—not profit—should be what rules.

I worked in higher education for a long time and over the years, the push was to become more “business-like.” The result, I think, is that universities and colleges focus on what brings in revenue rather than on education, which presumably is their mission. Programs are decimated not because they don’t bring value to an educational organization, but rather because they don’t sustain profitability.

The educational sector is not alone in this.

Over the years, I’ve seen too many nonprofits lose sight of their mission. I see that a lot when it comes to grants or gifts that the organization really shouldn’t be seeking.

More than a decade ago I was working with an organization that was offered a grant for a project that did not meet their mission in any way, shape or form. The CEO was all for it—the grant, after all, was equal to a quarter of his operating budget. Saner heads prevailed. They helped the funder find a more appropriate organization for their grant. And for their efforts they received a much larger grant to enhance a core project.

It doesn’t always work that way, of course. Greediness often prevails. People forget why they got involved with nonprofits to begin with. Or, like so many of us, they get seduced by easy money, access to powerful people—all the same things that entice most of us.

They may or may not be bad people, but they are bad for the sector. Not so much, I think, for what they do but for what others make them stand for. A CEO of a for-profit business makes obscene amounts of money, or runs the organization into the ground. People will shake their heads and some will even be enraged. But the business community as a whole isn’t excoriated.

Let the antics of an Edward and Marcia Dawson get out, however, and trust for charitable organizations plummet.

Perhaps it is understandable that we should be held to a higher standard. But until the many, many organizations that hew to that higher standard are topics of front page news, we will have to work harder to ensure that we are letting our supporters know that we not only do good works but that we do them well and we are, therefore, worthy of their gifts and of their trust

Janet Levine is a consultant and trainer, teaching fundraising, board development and grantwriting skills online and face to face. Contact her at