image “I’ve randomly inserted pictures of my grandkids in my progress reports,” one executive director of a prominent mid-Atlantic nonprofit told me. “I’ve inserted lines like, ‘If you really read this, call me.’” He was bemoaning the fact that he’s forced to spend time writing reports that his foundation officer doesn’t seem to read. “Next time,” he said, “I’m going to put in an ad for my used car.”

This executive director’s stories would be funny if they weren’t true. I hope his situation is an exception, but it represents the sad state of affairs surrounding progress reports. Foundation folks I know have admitted to me that the program officer is typically the only person who reads the reports. After that, nothing is done with them. One foundation actually told me, “We say we believe in knowledge building, but the truth is, the progress reports are not shared with other staff members or the board.”

There’s a difference between bureacratization and professionalization. A lot of professions, such as law and medicine, do involve a lot of bureacracy and paperwork, but those professions revolve around many institutionalized rules. It sometimes seems that the nonprofit sector is being bureaucratized faster than it is becoming professionalized.

There are usually three prerequisites to becoming a profession:
1. There must be an accepted body of knowledge.
2. There must be a code of ethics.
3. And there must be a body to enforce the code of ethics.

The nonprofit sector is developing in all of these directions, but it isn’t quite there yet. We don’t have an accepted understanding of effectiveness. There is no code of ethics, except for fundraisers. And if we did have a code of ethics, there would be no enforcement body to suspend or admonish anyone who broke it.

The venture capital industry is similar to our sector in that is also not quite a profession; but it, however, has managed to avoid the bureaucracy. In venture capital, funders rarely ask portfolio companies for progress reports. The response would be, “What? You want me to stop calling potential customers and write a report instead?” Venture capitalists rely on quarterly phone calls or informal lunches. Formal, written quarterly earnings reports are rare until a company goes public.

While I heartily agree with the need to measure progress, do you think we’ve gone a bit far in terms of bureacracy and formality in our sector? Even though we’re not really a profession yet, do you think we’re becoming too bureacratic? Does writing progress reports give you a headache? Do you think your foundation officer really reads your reports? Would it be just as effective to brief them by phone, or in person over lunch?

Please tell us what you think.


image Perla Ni, founder and former publisher of Stanford Social Innovation Review, is the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits. She is also a co-founder of Grassroots.com.

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