Non-Profits: Take Clint Eastwood’s Advice
“If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster!” Clint Eastwood.
How Non-Profits are Learning the Wrong Lessons from Business, and Ignoring the Good Lessons
Bill Huddleston, The CFC Coach, BillHuddleston1@gmail.com
More and more non-profit blogs and consultants, as well as both government and foundation funders are becoming more and more insistent about the need for non-profits to evaluate their results. What’s often used as the model for this is some version of the mantra: “Non-profits need to be more like a business.”
What’s implied, and indeed often said, is that if the non-profit providing the service cannot show results that there won’t be any funding. At one level this sounds very basic, and what could be wrong with “demonstrating results” before funding? Well, actually a lot as it turns out.
Here’s a short list of projects that would have failed if the visionary leaders that made them happen had to demonstrate “proven results before funding:”
The electric light bulb (Thomas Edison)
The invention of the airplane (Wright Brothers)
The polio vaccine (Jonas Salk)
The battery (Benjamin Franklin)
This is obviously just a short list, and there are thousands of other examples, whether they are products or methods of dealing with a problem, e.g. “voluntary associations” to use Alexander de Tocqueville term.
Non-profits and funders are learning the wrong lesson when they insist upon results before funding, especially for a new non-profit, or one that is attempting a new way of dealing with a problem that may be thousands of years old (hunger, etc.) or one that is more recent (AIDS, etc).
“Demonstrate results and then we’ll fund you,” of course sounds seductively real to the non-profit seeking funds, and where the danger lies is that the non-profit will overpromise and under deliver. “Of course, we’ll solve X problem in the space of time your grant will cover, we have great people working on it, and it’s an issue that can be addressed by our unique approach.” Please make it a five year grant, but if you won’t do that, make it at least a 3 year one so we can actually solve this problem.
The second seductive phrase issued by the funder is often a variation of, “And once you’ve demonstrated these results, this will of course indicate scalability, and we’ll help you grow from being just a local community non-profit to one that’s working and recognized on a national or global scale.”
When a visionary entrepreneur starts a business, there is obviously hope and belief that it will succeed, but the reality is that most businesses fail, and that very few of them grow and become super successful. What’s often not realized that it may be the same person that fails at a particular business before he or she gets everything right – the Ford Motor Company was the third company founded by Henry Ford, the first two failed. Microsoft was not Bill Gates first company, (although granted he formed his first one while he was a teenager).
Non-profits are dealing with the toughest problems on the planet, including many that will never be solved by a “market solution.” If you’re funding a non-profit pick one that deals with an issue you care about, and support them in every way, but don’t demand results before action. If you do, you by definition are restricting the activities and approaches to the most conventional, and ignoring the possibility of a quantum leap of success.
Clint Eastwood has it right when he says, “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster” and while he may have been talking about the movie industry, it also applies to the non-profit world. Let’s not have our brains and visions stifled by the limiting belief that “results must be demonstrated before funding.” If you don’t like the approach a particular non-profit is taking, choose to fund a different one, but don’t micromanage and limit their ability to succeed by insisting upon results first.
That’s acting like the little boy that planted a garden and went to complain to his mother two weeks later that “Mom, Nothing is growing in my garden.” “How do you know?” asked his mother, “Because I dug everything up to see what was happening!”
The CFC Coach