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20 Traps Nonprofits Must Avoid

Submitted Thursday, January 23rd 2014 2:27 pm by Timothy S. Jacobson
in   nonprofit    charity    501(c)3    hazards    traps    organization    rules    guidance    advice    consulting    effectiveness    reaching your potential  

20 Traps Nonprofits Must Avoid

By Tim Jacobson

~The Nonprofit Provocateur~


Hazard Signs

The world is filled with traps for nonprofit organizations—things you and your group must be vigilant to avoid. Don’t get sucked into these sinkholes! Flee from things that absorb most of your time with little to show for it. Run from the temptations of the path of least resistance. Fight off those Negative Nellies that sap your energy. Here’s a list of the twenty traps charities must avoid.

1.       Avoid recruiting board members on the sole basis that they’re nice people or they like the mission. The board of directors is the core of the organization, and it must be healthy, strong and savvy for the group to reach its true potential. Not all nonprofits have paid staff members, but each and every one of them has a board of directors. Recruiting top-quality board members with diverse skills is the most important function of a nonprofit at every stage of its existence. Lacking a good board, a charitable group is extremely unlikely to be in a position to effectively implement the mission. A healthy, vibrant group should have board members with expertise in fundraising (or at least experts in connecting with the community), finances, business, marketing, law, and the programmatic (substantive) focus of the nonprofit. Charisma is another wonderful quality, especially for the board president. And if the organization has professional staff, the board members must understand their roles vis-à-vis the staff and provide enough latitude to let them achieve results.

2.      Avoid sloppy hiring decisions. Excellent, motivated, intelligent staff members can move mountains when backed by a solid, supportive board that helps with fundraising. But hire a person just because they come cheap or because it’s a person easy to find, and watch out! The organization can muddle along aimlessly or be dragged downward. Nonprofit work is hard. It takes a tremendous of energy, stamina and thick skin to lead a nonprofit successfully. Especially with the executive director role, a nonprofit must strive to hire the best person it can find.

3.      Avoid treating your organization’s supporters as nothing other than a bank. While participating in a board meeting one time, I got into a discussion about the frequency of e-mail communications and the number of requests for donations. Some of the board members started talking about groups they support and how dismayed they are to be bombarded every week with messages pleading for money but providing little substantive information. While you should provide opportunities for people to support the group, don’t spam your donors and volunteers with a steady stream of fundraising appeals. And don’t claim that the sky is always falling. People will be happy to support organizations that they believe are successfully confronting the challenges before them and are achieving the mission. Let your communications reflect all of the positive things the group is accomplishing (but don’t omit the “donate” button from e-mails or websites).

4.      Avoid spending 80% of your time on activities that generate 20% of the results. The 80/20 Rule, also known as the Pareto principle, states that, in many circumstances, roughly 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. In nonprofits, the following observations are often made:

• 80% of revenue tends to come from 20% of donors

• 80% of complaints tend to come from 20% of the people served

• 80% of revenue tends to come from 20% of the time one spends

This principle highlights the importance of being strategic and focusing on those activities that give the biggest return. It's essential to constantly reevaluate what's working most effectively and to pare back or eliminate those activities that are least efficient. (See for more on this topic.)

5.      Avoid fear of failure. Nothing great in this world is achieved in the absence of failure. When Thomas Edison invented the first commercially practical incandescent light, it was the result of experimenting with, and failing with, thousands of different filaments to find just the right materials to glow well and be long-lasting. Everyone who has done great things has experienced great failures.

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. The Beatles were rejected by Decca Recording Studios who said they had no future in show business. Steve Jobs was devastated at age 30 when he was kicked out of Apple Computer. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for "lacking imagination." Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her news anchor job because she "wasn't fit for television." Albert Einstein wasn't able to speak until he was almost 4 years old, and his teachers said he would "never amount to much." John Grisham couldn’t get his first novel published until after he achieved success with his second book “The Firm.”

If you've never failed, you've never tried anything new. Einstein described failure as “success in progress.” (Check out about striving for excellence.)

6.      Avoid ignoring your supporters. Yes, you do need to focus on carrying out the mission of the organization. But don’t neglect to stay in touch with, and provide encouragement for, your donors, volunteers (including board members), and other stakeholders. Keep them informed about what the organization is accomplishing, and help them feel that they are part of that success. Be donor-centric in your communications.

7.      Avoid risks to your charity’s reputation. As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.” But, as John Wooden has pointed out, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” Integrity must be a primary value for your organization in all it does.

8.      Avoid the rut of doing things the way they’ve always been done. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. Life evolves. Things change. We need to adapt and grow. This is especially true for nonprofit groups in the realms of marketing and fundraising. Your donors are changing how they receive and respond to information. Catch up!

9.      Avoid the temptation of putting the small rocks into the jar first. Rocks and jars? Huh? Management gurus often talk about the concept of “putting the big rocks in first,” and for good reason. The illustration involves trying to fit a quantity of materials into a wide-mouth jar or bucket, when the materials come in significantly different ranges of size. The usual demonstration involves big rocks, small gravel and sand. Sometimes, water is used, too. If one puts the big rocks in the bucket first, the smaller particles can be poured over the top and shaken in to fill the cracks. If one performs the maneuver by trying to fill the container with the same quantity of materials but in reverse order (i.e. smallest grain sizes first), the big rocks will not fit. (See for more on this topic.)

This provides a useful analogy for time management and resource utilization. If one spends his or her time by first focusing on all the little, insignificant tasks and demands that arise, the big, important items will never get done. Instead, if one focuses first on the biggest, most important tasks, it is more likely that the small stuff will resolve itself or, perhaps more likely, accomplishment of the big things will result in an increase of resources and capacity that can be used to deal with the less significant items, as well.

10.     Avoid insistence on perfection. As blogger Seth Godin has said, “No one reads a comic strip because it's drawn well. It has to be drawn well enough, not perfectly.” Don’t let perfection become the enemy of completion.

11.     Avoid micromanagement. This rule applies to boards of directors in their dealings with executive directors, and it applies to executive directors and department heads in their dealings with subordinate employees. Sometimes a leader will need to step in, on a temporary basis, if there’s a performance problem, but this should be the exception, not the rule. If a leader needs to micromanage, it’s because the leader has hired the wrong person, the employee has unexpectedly melted down, or the leader is a control freak.

12.     Avoid trying to please everyone. Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” You may waste time on the wrong people while investing too little time in the right people, with the result that you could lose the right people.

13.     Avoid stodgy marketing. It’s okay to spread a conservative message, if that’s your audience. But remember—this is the 21st Century. There’s social media, YouTube, and e-mail. If all you’re doing to market your organization is holding some events and sending out printed newsletters, it’s time to catch up with the rest of the world. Find someone with a smartphone and shoot a video of what your group is working on or one of the people you’ve served or who has supported you. Then distribute the video link through e-mail and social media. Try something new today! (Check out for some ideas.)

14.     Avoid lofty goals at the expense of actionable plans. Your charity should have lofty goals. It’s fine to have mission statements and value statements. Those things are great. But get real, too. Move beyond the jargony platitudes and create concrete, measurable goals for your nonprofit to achieve. Show people that you’re serious. And then when you’ve achieved those goals, go ahead and let people know. People support charities that achieve.

15.     Avoid trying to be everything to everyone. This is similar, but different, to the admonition against trying to please everyone. What I’m talking about here is mission creep. I’ve seen a conservation group, for example, that seemed bent on trying to solve every environmental and social crisis or issue that may be occurring in the world: water quality, air quality, sustainable agriculture, healthy eating by school children, climate change, scenic protection, green energy, industrial practices, etc. You are not going to be able to fix everyone’s health, emotional well-being, spirituality and environment, and bring about peace, justice, equality and fairness. Figure out what your organization’s primary strength is and run with it. Let other nonprofits focus on different, but related, issues.

16.     Avoid a “bake sale” mentality for addressing real-world issues. If your organization has a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year but you have development committee members still talking about organizing bake sales to fill budget holes, it’s time to recruit new committee members. Refer back to #4, above, about the 80/20 Rule. Eighty percent of your charity’s revenue probably comes from about 20 percent of your donors or other sources, such as grants. Do a better job of growing those major sources rather than screwing around with piddly things that provide de minimis results.

17.     Avoid a pattern of negative or boring board meetings. If board and staff members repeatedly leave board meetings feeling demoralized, the board president and/or executive director need to shake things up and handle meetings differently. You don’t pour ice water into the cylinders of your car’s engine, and you shouldn’t use board meetings as a dumping ground for gripes, negativity, etc. The boardroom is the engine of the organization. Pour in some inspiration, some gratitude for the work of staff, board and volunteers, and add a big dose of encouragement. While board meetings do need to deal with items that are less than fun, they can’t simply be about drudgery if you want to move the organization forward and experience growth. Board presidents should make a point of lavishing praise on staff members, when it’s due, in front of the whole board. Staff members probably are busting their butts for little pay. At least pay them compliments. Applause, laughter and congratulatory statements should be regular parts of board meetings.

18.     Avoid the moralistic attitude that prevents your group from receiving corporate support. I’ve seen nonprofit groups pass on potentially big revenue sources because of a concern that money may be coming from a corporation that’s less than perfect—like an environmental group refusing to accept support from a company in the energy field. I personally like the phrase, “The only thing wrong with tainted money is there t'aint enough of it.” Get those corporate bastards to contribute to society. That’s what we should want them to do, right?

19.     Avoid marginalizing the programmatic aspects of the organization. In other words, don’t let fundraising and administration eat up too much of the budget. Your charity can and should be a fountain for creating positive activity and measurable results to improve the welfare of living beings—people, animals, or both. When you do good work, your marketing and fundraising will happen more naturally and with less effort and expense.

20.     Avoid the tendency to always focus on the immediate while ignoring long-term planning and goals. Just as for-profit businesses often get seduced into focusing on the next quarter’s profit and loss statement, nonprofits tend to spend so much time focusing on immediate concerns that they fail to see and capitalize on longer-term opportunities. Make sure your organization takes the time for board and staff retreats to allow time for strategic thinking. You’ll never think strategically if all you talk about at meetings are the monthly financial reports and the previous month’s meeting minutes.

By avoiding these 20 common traps, your nonprofit organization has the potential to achieve tremendous results and make its corner of the world a better place. As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Untether your organization’s potential and soar!

Like’ and/or 'Share' this article below if these issues resonate with you, and use the comment field to add your own hazard warnings. What hazards have you seen arise in the nonprofit world that must be avoided? Share your insight and help others!

Tim Jacobson is president of Visjonær Consulting & Communications. He's been a board member and executive of a number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's the author of the book Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success, to be released in 2014, executive producer of a documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, and author of Amazon best-selling thriller The Kurchatov Penetration. He has been featured dozens-upon-dozens of times by TV and radio stations, magazines and newspapers for his consulting, filmmaking, writing, conservation and legal work and for his exploration of international justice and peace issues.

This article is copyright (c) 2014, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.


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