Being Special

As I binge-read nonprofit blogs the other day, I was struck by how the authors were either so depressed about the state of all things in our sector or so manic that to read them made you wonder why mega-million dollar gifts weren’t more plentiful than they are.  There is a sense in the nonprofit world that we are the very best, or the very worst, but mainly we are certainly very special. A recent op-ed in the LA Times was all about this feeling of being unlike everyone else. “Victims of confidence schemes have something in common:  they think they’re special”  resonated a lot for me.

Believing they are superior to everyone else makes people susceptible to scam.  Most people, in fact, think that they are better than they are and that they will not fall victim to thinking we are unlikely to suffer negative outcomes.

Nonprofits are like that, a lot.  I see so many organizations barely managing to keep the Respect fundraisingdoors open and yet they don’t see the danger lurking.  Oh, yes, they talk about it—but that is all they do.  There is this magical thinking that makes them—us!—believe that the funding fairy or donor deliverer will save us.

It’s the same process that makes all meetings and events “successful.”  Or grants that haven’t even been applied for yet put on the budget as if it was definitely money coming in.

Likewise, the downer syndrome that makes us revel in being low-paid, overwhelmed and overworked, under-resourced and underfunded.  These are not things to celebrate, folks.  They are things to work to change.

Reality is not always fun.  It means taking a long hard look at where you are and what it will take to get you to where you want to be.  An organization that raises $135,000 a year is not going to add three zeros (or even one!) to that unless there are serious changes in the way business is done.  And an understanding that it will take a long time for those changes to happen.

“It’s a chicken and egg thing,” many clients tell me.  “We need to raise more money, but we can’t until we have more staff.  And we can’t get more staff until we raise more money.”  Like that is going to happen without some serious change.

That starts by being realistic—how could you now, with current resources, be more effective?  For starters, stop saying you are too busy and quantify how you spend your time.  This is bound to be a real shock for most people.  Next, stop talking about what you can’t do and consider what you can.  What will it take, specifically—and when will you do each specific step?

Don’t throw around unmeasurable words about the things you are doing.  What makes a meeting successful?  What do you have to do to follow up and continue on that trajectory?

Don’t be afraid of the ordinary, the commonplace, the middle-of-the road.  That may just save you from being a victim and not accomplishing what needs to be done.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits moving them from mired to inspired.  Learn more at  Sign up for the newsletter and contact Janet for a free 30-minute consultation.