It seems like every week a new report is released calling for nonprofits to adopt a practice or increase investment in yet another area of their organization. The list of things a nonprofit must do to be effective is now miles long and ridiculous.
As a leader of one of the largest capacity-building organizations in the country, I want to let you in on a little secret. You can ignore nearly all these findings and best practices.
Nonprofit consultants and the industry’s media are largely to blame for this proliferation of noise. It is not due to bad intentions. It is simply a natural outgrowth of specialization, survival and marketing.
Consultants become specialists (in social media, strategy, governance, and so on)—and they need clients to survive. Unfortunately, some turn to the tried and true marketing formula of: think up a potential “next big thing,” tell a few success stories, share a few supporting trends about adoption, and make the case that if you don’t keep up with the Jones’s and hire them, your nonprofit will get left behind. The media eats it up, the consultant gets speaking gigs at conferences, and pretty soon their practice or idea or approach is accepted as fact. But it isn’t.
Our sector wastes an insane amount of time implementing best practices that have painfully low—if not negative—return on investment (ROI).
Here are five examples:
1) Volunteers. Recruiting and managing volunteers generally isn’t worthwhile unless you use at least 50 per year, they do at least 50 hours of service each (or fewer volunteers and more hours each), and you invest in volunteer management systems. Short of that, it’s almost certainly a waste of time.
2) Websites. Most nonprofits (the small neighborhood ones) would likely be fine with just a Facebook page. A template site would do the trick for slightly larger group. Only 25 percent of nonprofits need customized web design.
3) Board. There is a tremendously high fixed cost to training your board to facilitate donations (in kind or cash). If your board can’t generate a large part of your budget (say, 20 percent), you are likely to find them getting in the way of fundraising success and eating up senior staff time (and increasing burn out). If that’s the case, your organization would likely see more success with a smaller board focused solely on audits and the legal requirements of governance.
4) Social Media. Does it drive your advocacy, fundraising, or program success? It does for likely less than 2 percent of nonprofits. Everyone else is wasting a ton of time and energy on it. Much like my local car wash that urges me to “like” it on Facebook.
5) Strategic planning. You need a strategic plan, but for most organizations it can be a lot lighter than most MBAs want to admit. It doesn’t need to be perfect and frequently should be more of a living document.
My bottom line advice is that you should only invest in things you need to achieve your goals and be very careful of anything that you should do. If you are not positive which category an investment falls into, don’t ask a consultant. Ask your peers about their experience.
Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.