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This One Thing Can Really Harm Your Nonprofit

After serving as a consultant to over 100 agencies in my career, I have begun to see certain types or profiles of nonprofits.  One of those profiles is the “Everything-to-Everyone” or E2E nonprofit. These E2E agencies live under the false assumption that it is in their charter and vision to serve each and every community need in their program area AND that they should.  This one thing can really harm your nonprofit.

513 Free* became an E2E organization.  It started nearly a decade ago as a Christ-centered, national-quality worship band that held evangelistic concerts in jails and prisons.  However, each time the 513 Free team went behind bars, they observed more and more needs and soon developed a burden for not just the inmates but for breaking the cycle of incarceration.  This new, grand mission, coupled with overwhelming need, grew their passion like a batch of yeast dough that has been left unattended in a warm place. After years of germinating, 513 Free rapidly expanded to add a youth mentoring ministry, a publishing house producing The Pen Project magazine for inmates, and an inmate re-entry program.  Honestly, any one of these ministries could consume one organization, especially a small one. And consume it did.

How This One Thing Harms Nonprofits

How does this happen?  I suspect a combination of four factors come into play:

  1. Overwhelming Need – Just like the serial entrepreneur, nonprofit leaders can become overwhelmed by how much need/opportunity exists.  Their heart breaks for those suffering, and they translate that passion into unbridled action.
  2. Constant BusynessAction upon action produces busyness. Operations get so busy that there is not time to think, process, or analyze.  What made sense yesterday, may not make sense today; however, everyone is so busy that they only have the time and energy to be nice.
  3. Nice CultureBeing nice is a survival tactic of simply going along to get along.  It is being polite without thought or intention. This can happen either out of culture or out of busyness.  Either way, no one takes the time to ask, “are we doing the best thing?” or “what’s our strategy?” (Click here to read why “What’s Wrong With Being Nice?”)
  4. Absent Strategy – These factors translate to action without an overarching, long-term, realistic strategy.  Yogi Berra famously said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”  Failure to stop, think critically about where you are going and have honest conversations about how to best get there leads to the land of “Nonprofit Sprawl.”

Not surprisingly, 513 Free struggled with many of these factors and fell into an E2E mentality. It took them to a breaking point where the team was burned out and frustrated. In an act of courage rare to many if not most nonprofit boards, the board of 513 Free declared the nonprofit sprawl unsustainable.  Earlier this year, the board decided to split the agency into four independent ministries, each with their own 501(c)(3) designation and their own board. The board went back to their roots and kept the original prison worship ministry.  I was blown away by the decision and proud of their courage.

While spinning off ministries is not the solution to every problem (or even most problems), every nonprofit leader should follow 513 Free’s example of looking critically at their situation and proactively establishing a clear strategy for achieving a vibrant and sustainable future to avoid this one thing that could really harm your nonprofit.

*DB&A has been granted permission to publish this story.

Struggling to focus your vision and mission? DB&A’s Strategy Team partners with nonprofit leaders create vibrant, sustainable agencies.  We can help facilitate honest conversations, dive deep into operations and impact, and develop realistic, actionable plans.  Contact us today to learn more.

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