Understanding the box, before thinking outside it

It’s time for the nonprofit sector to understand ‘the difference between transformation and change’

A young professional in the nonprofit sector recently asked, “Why do so many older nonprofit leaders constantly talk about how hard they work?”

The question was less an inquiry and more an assertion that these “whiners” needed to realize that everyone works hard and complaining only diminished their credibility.

On the surface, this seemed like a painfully true observation. But something gnawed at me about the statement.

A benefit to being older is that you learn the wisdom of “waiting.” As I let my thoughts ruminate, I realized the reason for the reputation that nonprofit leaders whine: I believe that those who were lamenting their long hours are actually reluctant to say what they really want to say.

Saying we are working too hard is safer than saying “much about the nonprofit business model just doesn’t hold up anymore.”

Because once we say that, then what?

Will we put in jeopardy what is working? Will we be pressured to turn away from those at our front door? Will our funding partners jump to the conclusion that we simply don’t know how to run our nonprofit businesses? Will we be pushed to merge with a larger nonprofit as a quick fix?

These are real questions with real consequences.

On the other hand, perhaps we are letting fear get in the way of progress. Are we assuming our donors, foundation partners and business supporters are locked into the old paradigms that hold the sector back? If we met across a table, would we all agree on some fundamental shifts in our thinking?

There is a quiet movement happening in the nonprofit sector that is getting louder each year. As this movement takes hold, hopefully a stronger appetite for growing high-impact organizations supported by strong investments in infrastructure, technology, research, staffing and room for failure will prevail.

This movement is about letting go of many of the antiquated practices that have long made up the “box” many nonprofits are operating within. This “box” includes many of the practices found in the nonprofit business model.

The model is shaped on a premise that our towns and cities will be culturally rich, our environment preserved, our water clean, our response to disasters immediate, our children safe and healthy, our elders cared for, our teens mentored and our homeless sheltered … without strong investment or shared leadership.

Shared leadership approach

Dan Pallotta, provocative nonprofit columnist, writes, “We (nonprofit sector) have a history of taking on very complex issues facing communities with inadequate resources, poor technology, little space for research and development and no space for failure. We also have a habit of funding small, exciting ideas over investing in long-term successes.”

Pallotta urges that we all take a close look at the way we think about the nonprofit sector before trying to “think outside the box.” He suggests that bigger ideas — such as the idea that transformational structural change is needed for the nonprofit sector — actually pushes us out of our thinking-small mentality, which is counter to the culture in the sector.

“Thinking out of the box is actually backwards,” states Pallotta. “It pays lip service to the notion of transformation, without really understanding the difference between transformation and change.”

“You cannot possibly think outside the box unless you understand the nature of the box that bounds your current thinking. You must have real insight into it. You must accept it, and embrace it at some level, before it will ever release you.”

Much is being written about the nonprofit sector being at a crossroads. Many agree with Pallotta — that the future of the sector relies on the capacity of its leaders to adopt a shared leadership approach with stakeholders and together commit to ending the years of limited thinking that keeps progress at bay and create a vision of what is truly possible.

We have exhausted the concept of doing more with less. It’s time for the nonprofit sector to figure out the box it’s in. As Pallotta writes, “If we don’t, we’ll just stay stuck inside. And, that’s exactly what the box wants.”

Because of its size, its creativity and “can do” culture, there is no better place than New Hampshire to get on the other side of the box.

The N.H. Center for Nonprofits is holding our Nonprofit Leadership Summit on Sept. 20, where we will set the stage for the discussion on the future, and on Nov. 14 at the Nonprofit Policy Caucus, where we will chart a plan. Diverse ideas welcomed!

Mary Ellen Jackson, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, can be reached at 603-225-1947.

Categories: Business Advice, Workplace Advice