Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

January 23, 2012

Charities need to trust themselves

By Todd Cohen

A virulent strain of strategic paralysis threatens to afflict much of the charitable marketplace.

Deeply wounded by unprecedented financial distress, and looking for a quick fix, many charities are becoming smitten if not obsessed with trendy, philanthropically-correct management ideas peddled by nonprofit trade groups, consultants, foundations and academic researchers.

So in trying to cope with escalating demand for services and an increasingly grim market for charitable investment, many nonprofits are trying to swallow, without digesting, big concepts like logic models, market research, metrics, performance evaluation, social media, entrepreneurialism, and return on investment.

Any or all of those and other concepts, if they make sense for a particular nonprofit and are planned carefully and applied strategically, might help an organization inform the way it works and help it survive and thrive.

But many nonprofits simply grab onto those ideas in a panic and without scrutiny or thinking through their implications, including their true costs and possible downside, as well as how to put them into practice in the most productive way.

Strategic theories, whether borrowed from the world of business or developed in think-tanks or on university campuses, are no substitute for street smarts and common sense.

No matter what a consultant advises, a funder demands, or a study or textbook prescribes, nonprofits need to think on their own about how to cope in an economy that is deeply damaged, and a social and global environment that is evolving quickly in the face of multiple crises, sweeping demographic change, and rapid advances in technology.

A management theory or formula certainly can help inform the decisions a nonprofit makes about how to improve its services, operations or fundraising.

But no two organizations or sets of business challenges are alike, market forces continually shift, and theory is little more than a guess until put into practice.

Many nonprofits are fortunate to have experienced and gifted managers and leaders who can help their organizations set a vision, build a team, think for themselves, understand their challenges, and identify, sort through and select their most promising options and partners.

But far too many charities are willing to put their brains, experience and instincts on hold while embracing well-meaning but often vague and half-baked ideas prescribed by trade groups, consultants and funders who are quick to preach their pet theories but do not stand in the shoes of those charities and will not have to live with the consequences of the advice they give.

Instead of blind faith in these self-anointed experts, who often are clueless about or complicit in the cut-throat competition and shameless cronyism that corrupt the charitable marketplace, nonprofits need to trust their own ability to find their way out of the economic gloom and doom.

The best hope for charities is to have faith in their own vision and judgment.


  • At 2:37 PM, Blogger Marc said…

    I whole heartedly concur. In addition, many individual and organizational consultants start out by pretending that they want to volunteer but are really only trying to get an unsuspecting non-profit to hire them. As it turns out, those who do this seem to not really have the expertise that they claim to have.

  • At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Prentice Zinn said…

    Well said, Todd. I hope nonprofit leaders chime in with their experiences.

    A lot of management theory gets debunked as horse-hockey within a decade.

    As a funder, I always ask nonprofit leaders what changed as a result of their latest consulting project.

    Most tell me that it is a mixed bag. They say that the consulting engagement was an expensive confirmation of what they already knew.

    My foundation colleagues will tell you that the half-life of strategic plans, logic models, theories of change, SWOT analysis, toolkits, etc. seem to be about 6 months until they decay and are absorbed by organizational antibodies.

    My tally of the track record for most foundation supported capacity building projects seems to be about 50/50 - half don't build much of anything other than fodder for a consultants project portfolio.

    Despite the weak ROI, I expect the carnival of consulting to continue during this Biblical meltdown of the nonprofit sector.

    Organizations are desperate for answers - any answers about how to shift into a fundamentally different mode of thinking and operating.

    Foundations are at a deep loss for their role in the crisis. Funding consulting as they triage their favorite organizations probably feels like they are at least doing something for the bleeding on the battlefield - "A wee squirt of Neosporin for yer arm and leg amputations, mate?"

    But think about it. A 50/50 ratio is not that bad.

    It means that some of the work can be transformative depending on context, leadership, and capacity.

    I'll take those odds.


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