Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Sirens in Nonprofit Management

The idea of maintaining coherence is equally present in nonprofits – they must specialize to differentiate themselves, not just to provide services effectively, but also to win the grants to continue to operate. Donors, however, often want to see the nonprofit expand in ways aligned with their passions, often to other geographical areas or other services provided. Even if this is part of the mission statement, organizations may lack the resources, expertise or community support that would make that initiative successful. So it is essentially a siren, like Anhueser-Busch’s foray into snacks, to please a donor and presumably, to solidify funding from that donor or tap into larger resources. The Seven Ways to Fail Big article may classify this kind of push as either a Synergy Mirage or a Pseudo Adjacency, depending on the situation.
My experience with this comes from the nonprofit I worked for, College Possible Omaha. While in External Relations, we applied for and received a $10,000 grant from the Midlands Community Foundation, which specializes in the counties outside of Omaha. While we did have services in the adjacent Sarpy county, it was sufficiently close to the city that we were easily able to allocate resources there. The Foundation awarded the grant with the stipulation that we open services to schools in Fremont and the satellite schools in more distant parts of Sarpy County and in Cass County. While this sounds reasonable, the donors didn’t realize that our AmeriCorps program model, did not lend itself well at all to this proposal. Putting a coach out there meant at minimum an hour commute to team meetings on Fridays and the inability to go to the office for supplies during the week. With the limited living stipend, there was very little chance a corps member could afford this, and the National limited reimbursement policy on mileage would be difficult to adapt. We were forced to turn the grant down and discontinue applications to the Foundation after this, which was unfortunate, because there was a lot of good a continuing partnership could have accomplished.

It’s unfortunately common for nonprofit organizations to take on providing new services that may be related, or worse hardly related at all. The Harvard Business Review published an article on this phenomena here https://hbr.org/2011/10/the-cure-for-the-not-for-profi, The organization they mention, The Harlem Children’s Zone was able to recover and divest, but other organizations, like Oprah’s Angel Network were not, and eventually were dissolved. Changing the organization’s focus based on trends in philanthropy can be another example of a siren, similar to Wrong Technology Bets. In my future, where I hope to work for governmental organizations and run nonprofits, keeping the mission in mind and being aware of the organization’s capabilities will help me ensure the success of the organization I choose to work for.

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