Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Susan Boyle Nonprofits

The Susan Boyle phenomenon has been interesting. Here is someone who some have described as an individual who is not what one reporter called "magazine cover" material getting her chance and really shining. Now I am not sure who is magazine cover material or that we should be a world that titles people in such a way, but I do know that Susan Boyle is a great singer and when she was able to showcase her talent, she did so admirably. I also respect that she fought off the ridiculous requests for her to get a make-over, stating she was happy how she looked.

Now, I can't help it but I frequently find how popular media stories like this are equal to the nonprofit world and I see one glaring me in the face. It relates to the work to obtain funder relationships. I often see the work to woo funders similiar to American Idol or other reality show based on pomp and circumstance. Groups with glitz and buzz are often over resourced while the organizations with talent but not as flashy, the Susan Boyle Nonprofits (SBNP), are often overlooked. When the SBNP's get their chance, they almost surely shine. Also, they are often asked to become glitzy once they are revealed. Most have trouble doing what Susan Boyle did and turning this request down. They almost always take the money and the growth.

A friend told me of a glitzy and over-resourced organization that is much pomp and circumstance that has recently lost some funding. Some funders have teamed together to make sure this group had money while many Susan Boyle-like groups nearby continued to struggle to get their chance.

As I think of this, I have a big worry about Susan Boyle and the situation I listed above. I worry that Susan Boyle gets an agent, gets big and loses the "thing" that made her great. I also worry about this with nonprofits in a similar stage. SBNPs often want the agent and the fame but yet in the end lose their voice. Funders often become the agent to Susan Boyle Nonprofits and then when the voice is gone, so are they.

Let's hope Susan Boyle stays the way she is, a beautiful person with a beautiful voice. Fine just the way she is.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In Nonprofit We Trust

I thought an interesting read this week was the paper by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and School of Public and Environmental Affairs entitled, "Are Nonprofits Trustworthy". Find here: ( The study basically states that between the three levels of government, business and the non-profit sector, non-profits are the most trusted of the sectors. Nothing new to my colleagues and would have loved to see if the field work for the data would of been done during the AIG mess.

I know my fellow practitioners are so tired of confronting the question of nonprofit trust, as they spend hours and money completing the endless grant reports and organizational performance evaluations needed to show how well they are spending a dollar. The answer from them on whether nonprofits are trustworthy, after the eye-rolling, is almost always a "Yes".

I would say that in regard to trust, nonprofit organizations are the safest bet in the trust realm. Sure, you have heard of stories of ministries gone awry or a nonprofit executive mishandling resources. I once saw an nonprofit leader try to justify to me the need to have his dry cleaning paid as part of a homeless services grant. He stated, "I must project an image that the homeless will aspire to". I told him the homeless did not crave heavily starched, cuff linked shirts.

But this is nothing in comparison to the highlighted stories we have seen from the business and government sector in recent months. With that, here are four reasons why the nonprofit sector is a more trustworthy partner than the other sectors:

  1. Try following your money through each of the sector's financial systems. For government and business, it literally cannot be done. Pay your taxes on April 15th and then call the IRS on the 30th and ask where your money went, they will have no idea. Paying for a Sponge-Bob night light, try following the purchase all the way to the hands of the Sponge Bob headquarters. Might be fun to do, but won't happen. In the nonprofit world, this is much easier. Donate to the community garden, in many cases you can follow your check all the way to the balance sheet.
  2. When a nonprofit has a financial impropriety, the sum is almost always lower than the monthly scandal on the government or business side. This is not because the sector is not big, it is because the control systems, like governance, put in place may prevent. There would be no way for an AIG mess in the nonprofit world, mainly due to size. The Aramony scandal in DC, notably one of the largest scandals in the nonprofit world was about $1.2 million dollars, a fraction of a penny compared to the scandals we see today.
  3. The impetus for belonging to the sector is driven by a different creed. A major factor in business, outside of innovation or belief in the product, is to make money. In government, there is a feeling of altruism that is attached, but can often quickly lost when the individual cannot find there way back to their cubicle due to the size of the agency or government effort. In a non-profit, even big ones, you did not arrive with the notion of making a fortune and you can often feel the vibration of subtle change as it happens.
  4. There is competition attached to the reporting structure of nonprofits. While there could be an argument that this happens in business, no business really loses that much if there are overhead irregularities in their annual report. I placed the purchase of a pencil in the travel line, oh well. And tell me the last time you read the federal budget. (I did, it is a bear!). If misreporting happens in the nonprofit world, a grant or contract would probably be in serious jeopardy. This is why the nonprofit practitioner spends so much time on reports, because they mean something.
The above outlines the position that nonprofits are in and why they must and do act in a different way than the government and business sector. The recent exposed looseness in the government and business sector has a direct relation to the trust statistics seen in the above report and it is nice to see the nonprofit sector coming out on top for once, its rightful place.