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5 of the Biggest Mistakes Nonprofits Make, and How to Fix It

In every community there exists a gap between defined problems and well-matched solutions. In thriving communities, these voids are filled by charitable nonprofits. Effective nonprofits bring together staff and volunteers, powered by donors who share their vision.

As an organization we have collective shared experience in nonprofit fundraising, leadership, board membership, program development and start up. We’ve seen nonprofits thrive, and we’ve watched them crumble to pieces. We’ve seen truly effective nonprofits and we’ve watched others waste valuable time and money.

And even in outwardly effective nonprofits, there are 5 common pitfalls that can lead to devastating consequences if they aren’t identified and managed:

  1. Lacking clearly defined vision. If your staff can’t articulate the vision then those you serve and those that support you won’t be able to.
  2. Mission not clearly defined and no buy in from staff and stakeholders.
  3. Failure to plan how to execute the mission.
  4. Failure in execution of the plan due to lack of direction and management of staff.
  5. Failure to collaborate with other organizations and businesses to maximize effectiveness and minimize costs.

Lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities

Overworked and underpaid….. The unspoken mantra of nearly every nonprofit. And while, to some degree it’s healthy to have employees who are more missionally driven and less focused on making money, lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities is a recipe for bitterness, resentment and toxicity.

Like most issues, the intention and root of this issue is not based out of malice or ill-will toward employees, but rather a survival mode that comes as a result of counting every dollar, and, in some cases, trying to artificially hold your admin rate as low as possible to prove to donors you are worth it.

Staff in organizations without clearly defined roles often feel they are somehow simultaneously doing too much and not enough. They work endless hours and yet see all the voids they are not filling. This is unbelievably disheartening and can lead to excessive turnover in key positions, which only serves to perpetuate this mission-killing cycle.

A few ways you can fix this:

  1. Does each employee have a list of guidelines and expectations for their role? If not, this needs to be created; and if roles have changed, or responsibilities have been added, this needs to be adjusted to reflect that.
  2. Have you had an honest look at what you are asking of each person and if those are reasonable expectations. For staff who have been with you longer, are they truly thriving in their job, or just trying to survive?
  3. Have each member of your staff write a list of their daily, weekly and monthly responsibilities. Have them rank how proficient they are in each of these and how much they enjoy each task.
  4. Truly evaluate each person. Are they the right person, in the right position, moving in the same shared direction as everyone else?

No mission or “why”

It’s simply not enough to create a boilerplate mission statement. Nonprofit work is emotive and donors desperately want to feel connected and necessary. Your why not only provides that emotional connection to donors, but speaks to who you are as a team.

Why statements help guide you as you look to expand your team, and inform you when team members may need to be removed.

How to fix it:

  1. Be intentional. Effective nonprofits are intentional and take the time to get internally organized because they know it matters. Schedule a block of time (at least 3 hours) to sit down with your core team and write out your “why.”
  2. Start easy. Look at everything you do and document what and how. Now match your why to each program and area of service. Extrapolate out from there to determine your overarching “why.”
  3. Take it to a pro. This is exactly why (no pun intended) we exist. Sometimes it’s best to get an outsider perspective to determine what your “why” really is.

Vision, but no execution

Nonprofit attrition rate is outrageous. Almost everyone wants to make a difference and oftentimes the best ideas come out of an overflow of passion. This is great, but it takes more than just passion to build a nonprofit that truly impacts the community, and addresses problems in a meaningful way.

A few tips:

  1. Find someone who is good at execution and listen to them. Often those with passion don’t like hearing “no” or “not yet.” It’s important to be humble and to listen to the wise counsel and advice of others (they’re not holding you back or stifling you…. Most likely).
  2. Learn. Take the time to join committees, go to community meetings, and involve yourself in the community you’re trying to serve. Be humble (did I say that already?) and take advice.

Duplicative efforts and lack of collaboration

Work together! There are likely hundreds, if not thousands of nonprofits in your area. Each community has a finite pool of donors and resources and if we’re constantly competing with each other for the same resources, we’re cannibalizing at the expense of those who actually need our help.

So how do we solve that?

  1. Do your research. Find out who in your community is addressing the need you’re seeing, and find ways to partner with them to achieve a greater goal. If no one is addressing the need in your community, try to find organizations in other communities you can learn from. They’ve likely made mistakes, and it will be a lot less painful to learn from them than to repeat them.
  2. Put your ego aside. If we’re honest, we all want to be the hero in the story. It’s important to remember most problems are so much bigger than just us, and require lots of hands to make a difference. Just because it’s not “yours” doesn’t make your work and participation any less meaningful.
  3. Stop giving into “poverty mentality.” In communities where resources are particularly tight, it’s so easy to slip into a poverty mentality that can make you a really bad community partner. It’s critical to think about the bigger picture: you got into nonprofit to help those who are hurting, and you have to release that mentality (and fear) to become a true community leader.

Mediocrity as a baseline for success

Because we’re tied to every dollar, this is so easy to slip into. Bad websites, dated collateral – and keeping staff on because we feel bad for them. Goals and objectives are replaced by flimsy metrics such as: “people like her a lot” or “clients trust him.”

What you put out matters, because the work you’re doing today has the potential to make an impact for generations to come…… so what you’re doing now should reflect that.

Beyond that, mediocrity doesn’t attract donors. Sure, some may like that you live on nothing; but most will be agitated at your awful donation portal, rude employee, and broken systems.

Some quick tips:

  1. Try to see yourself as an efficient corporation. What changes would you make were that your reality? Would that mean losing employees? Changing workflows?
  2. Think about your why. Do you want the people you serve to feel like mediocre is good enough? We should all strive for success in all that we do and modernizing your image, creating intelligent systems and managing an effective staff are all part of that winning strategy.

But here’s the reality….. Sometimes it’s really difficult to self-diagnose. Most nonprofits have leadership that have been there for decades and struggle to look objectively at their business. We know that, and we understand how challenging it can be to give an honest and constructive assessment. And hear us when we say constructive. Because being able to pinpoint doesn’t help you much, does it?

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