Nonprofits, How We Love Thee (Not!)

Photo by Metaphox
02.21.2013By

Photo by Metaphox

And now I shall be the skunk at the garden party, and speak of the thing nonprofits can be willfully oblivious to, but which rest assured everyone talks about openly: nonprofits can be a real pain to work with!

As a hybrid–someone who works with for-profits, but has roots in the nonprofit world–I hear this a lot. And I mean, a LOT. Specifically, here is the list of peeves that emerges from the for-profit world’s contractors, vendors, designers, consultants, et al.

Lack of Urgency, Lack of Deadlines

Nonprofits care first about mission. Which is as it should be. But this tends to create an environment where the deadlines others hold sacred get shortchanged if not outright ignored, particularly if mission-related programs are pre-empted by world events.

Enter consultants with a greater sense of urgency, faster timelines and hard stops on the project they’re brought in to assist with. The result? Missed or moving deadlines, higher invoices, drama all around.

Bottom line, no matter how you do business at your nonprofit, or how short-staffed you are, work out the kinks and be an efficient client–not just to respect the for-profit consultant’s time, but to manage your own budget, and, eventually, your community. As I once told a coworker who was baffled at my insistence at publishing every Wednesday at 10 am, “It’s like broadcast. Late once? Go to repeat. Late again? Show’s cancelled!”

Design by Committee

Now, this is a rather unfair one. Because design-by-committee exists everywhere–to wit, all the impassioned blog posts that want design-by-committee to simply die, none of them specifically about nonprofits. But if I had to guess, the perception that nonprofits are more guilty of this tends to arise from the fact that unless you’re incredibly well-funded, most nonprofits have to stringently budget for the for-profit consultant, who might then face the entire nonprofit’s board, staff, or team, who might just exude the nervousness that comes with the expenditure of a hard-won line item.

This is where you remind yourself that you picked this person after a thorough vetting process, because their proposal really impressed you, and because they come highly recommended–hopefully, that’s why they got the contract! So let them do their job. Trust their judgement. And recognize the difference between objecting because you really have concerns vs. weighing in because things just aren’t recognizable. Remember, the point was to change. That’s why you put out the RFP, right?

“This is how we do it.”

Again, not just specific to the nonprofit world. But nonprofits, mission-driven and “people first” as they usually are, can be particularly bad about busting through stagnant or established human dynamics in an organization. Especially if budgetary constraints or “founder syndrome” have ensured the concentration of institutional knowledge, executive authority, and staffing in a few hands.

But outsiders aren’t bound by your internal history. Frankly, they might not care. And they’re not under any obligation to fall into your existing processes. If anything, they come in charged to do the opposite, to do what’s efficient. They arrive to do what they were asked, to do what needs done–whether it’s moving a project forward or getting paid on time. It’s up to you to figure out how best to achieve that outcome. After all, that’s why you brought them on board, right?

You’re nonprofit. Everyone else? Not so much.

It’s in the name–nonprofits put people first and dollars second. And thank goodness! No one wants to live in a world where everything is about the bottom line. Certainly not your for-profit, contractors–if they did, they wouldn’t have responded to the RFP. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to make payroll for a living. Many a contractor, who genuinely wants to support nonprofit efforts, will comment about how nonprofits “want so much for so little,” or “try to barter or knock down fees.” Yes, you should try to protect your costs and get the best deal you can. But understand that your mission, or lack of budget, is not a reason for a contractor to reduce their rates. Which means that if you can’t afford their fees, either rethink the project or the budget. Your good intentions are not their business model.

And Yet…

Have I utterly turned you off yet? No? Well, then let me share the good stuff so you leave with a smile. :)

For all the headaches nonprofits might present, they still remain an intriguing, deeply satisfying, powerful proposition for many a for-profit company. Whether it’s bragging rights on a pivotal project or the genuine desire to be a socially responsible corporate citizen, everyone continues to respond to nonprofit RFPs. There’s usually a clear understanding that the consultant isn’t going to get rich. Because the payoff is not about money–for anyone.

The nonprofit world is full of passionate, driven, energetic, emotionally invested people who love what they do. “They’re happy people!” as a for-profit colleague puts it. And that joy rubs off. Many a contractor rediscovers their love for design, or product, or profession after an engagement with a nonprofit because it’s a priceless feeling to discover that what you do really changes people’s lives for the better, as opposed to selling the same widget again for the Acme Company.

To quote Rebecca Vaughn-King of Imagine DC, she who has held forth on design-by-committee, upon the end of an engagement, “He hugged me 5 times in 4 minutes after launch of the new site that increased his donations by 400% in one month.”

You can’t put a price on that.