Tuesday, September 05, 2006


by pam ashlund

When will nonprofits learn what is common knowledge to politicians? Modern political strategy stands on three pillars (according to Wikipedia): Message, Money, Machine. The entry-level campaign strategist understands that the second two won’t come until the first pillar is set up...establish the clear message (and ideally condense it into a catchy sound bite).

Let’s face it, we have an uphill battle on money and machine. If we raise too much money--unrelated business tax, if we raise too little--program cuts, if we spend it promoting our cause--misuse of funds; if we hire savvy leaders—Excessive Compensation! If we hit the streets-unallowable costs; if we use our volunteer activists? ; If we hook up with local politicians? Loose your status!

But Message? There are no barriers in our way here. Who are we? What do we want to be? And once we know why we are here…what do we bring to the table? The later should be in the forefront of every givers mind.

If you are seeing a nonprofit version of a monopoly game (go directly to jail do not collect $200)…you are reading my mind.


What to do when the message is already out there and it isn’t what you were wanting? Take a hint from the message masters: Politicians. Politicians are no strangers to scandal (did I say that with a straight face?). When they want to rebound after a scandal do they set up workshops on Accountability? NO. Do they write codes of conduct? NO. Do they hire compliance officers? Not a chance. They turn to the staple of magicians everywhere—misdirection. Give the public some compelling new vision, take their minds off the past and look toward a new future.


File this one under "I wish I said that!":...and the honor goes (dramatic pause) to Andrew Taylor and his blog The Artful Manager. Andrew had this to say:

“nonprofit...organizations have focused on a corporate ideal...effectiveness, efficiency, professionalism, best practices, change management, accountability...But what if, all along the way, we fundamentally misunderstood what it meant to be run "like a business"? What if our management metaphors actually contribute to the problems we hope they will solve—separateness, disengagement, inflexibility, entropy, and stress?”

I’d like to join Andrew in seeking a new set of metaphors.


Agenda is a funny word. Merriam-Webster’s lists two meanings: 1 : a list or outline of things to be considered or done 2 : an underlying often ideological plan or program (she has an agenda)

Sometimes the two meanings become one and the same, when the one with the "agenda" writes the "agenda"

Here’s the question: does the non-profit sector define it’s own agenda or is it defined for us?

There will always be the of the world, leading witch hunt’s and pointing out what’s wrong.

For an answer, I offer the example of . Instead of accepting psychology as a science that identifies and defines illness and cures, he asked what a healthy person would look like. That optimum state of being he defined as the self-actualized individual.

Maslow didn’t want to know what a neurosis was, he wanted to know what we could become, and in what direction we should proceed on that journey.

That simple change of focus was revolutionary to psychology and the same could be true for the nonprofit world.

What would a self-actualized non-profit sector do? What is this “third” sector that is not a church and not a governmental entity? Will we allow it to all be reduced to a tax-exempt status? That is what Grassley would have us be. So many challenges focus on taking away the tax exempt status of this type or that type….these challenges might help us define ourselves in the negative (by defining what we are NOT). But what did we think we were in the first place?

There’s an analogy here with the fate (failure?) of liberalism. What would it take to put forth a cohesive liberal platform? When did it become an insult (e.g. damn liberals)? Answer: a long time ago! How did a series of important ideals get reduced to their lowest denominator?

At this point we can’t even say we’re in business to “do good”. As we all know “do-gooder” is an insult.

Well, I’d better get back to the blackboard…I have my work cut out for me! In the meantime read the first article in this series: Identity Crisis.

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1 comment:

janet said...

If you consider that the term "liberal" in modern political usage devolves from the concept of Liberal Thought as we define the school of political theorists Including Hobbes, Locke, and John Stuart Mill among others we shouldn't be surprised by its drifting definition. Aside from your brilliant reflection on the liberal use of red herrings, slight of hand and other forms of misdirection perfected by the very same politicians who want to eat our lunch, I want to remind you that one very good way to lose one's (c)3 status is to engage in unfair competition with any and all for-profits. This is legally defined as doing the same activities as a for-profit but for much less because we use volunteers and/or slave-labor (thats an inside joke on not-for-profit wage scales.) This of course smacks of the entire realm of unfair competition we lump together as anti-trust. Imagine lumping us together with BIG BUSINESS like MIcrosoft and Standard Oil and such!!!

But back to your central theme re 'do-gooders' and Maslow and such: This entire issue exists because of two things: the disappearance of the huge "housewife" class who volunteered in a multitude of ways to escape brain death, and the late 1960's beginning of large amounts of federal grant dollars directed to community based organizations to, well, do good. In other words the posibility that one might be paid to do this stuff. This opens the 'other sector' to the other gender, and its been downhill ever since. If we utilize gender in organizational structure analysis, the biggest complaints against femal models has been their inefficiency; against male models it has been a tendency toward the absence of ethical constraints. Thus the integration of classic business modeling into any nonprofit venture will ipso facto carry with it the virus of relative ethics.