March 13, 2013

What if a lack of candor isn’t just holding your organization back, but has far greater impact within our communities?  Consider this – nonprofits, in their quest for more grants and major gifts, and with gratitude for any help, may be undoing their best intentions.  A recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy (“Some Nonprofit Leaders Ask: Is Philanthropy Killing Itself With Kindness?” by Caroline Preston) quotes Dr. Albert Ruesga:

“The culture of overweening politeness in American philanthropy is leading to our ruin,” says Ruesga, president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. “It keeps me from telling you, in the clearest possible terms, that your five-year, $2-million initiative to end homelessness is well-intentioned magical thinking at best and boneheaded ignorance at worst.”

If the culture within a nonprofit and among its relationships were led with candor, we could see a truer response to community needs.

Nonprofits are dealing with tough times – potential changes in tax laws, scarcity of resources, and increased demand for services. It feels uncomfortable to say “no, thank you” to the major gift, even when it’s designated for a less-than-effective program. It’s really difficult to acknowledge that the mission that started the organization is no longer the right direction to serve the community’s needs. But allowing these habits to remain is working against the greater objective by enabling resources – financial and human – to be misdirected.

Philanthropists are good people doing good work – it seems cruel to question their efforts. However, an honest conversation – a hard look at what’s most effective – will create great leaders causing incredible results. It might not feel so disconcerting to reconsider the “good-ness” when we can acknowledge the outcome of greatness.

“We need to talk about the way we talk,” continues Ruesga as cited in The Chronicle, “Currently, our culture prevents us from doing the right thing.”

This may be where the hardest work begins for nonprofits – having direct, honest conversations with founders, board members, employees, and donors. Candid conversation about every gift and every program can revamp how funds are spent, how organizations fulfill missions and ultimately, how communities are affected.

The list of missions is long and worthy. In today’s world of government and household budget cuts, can our philanthropy afford less-than-greatness?