A Reality Check for Nonprofit Professionals: Are You Taking the High Ground?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “high ground” as “a position of advantage or superiority; especially, an ethically superior position.” Given that this is an election season in the U.S., we see examples of the “high ground” when candidates claim to be taking the high ground when they refuse to respond to mudslinging or claim that their campaign platforms reflect the high ground.

Back in the “good old days”—which really wasn’t all that long ago—nonprofit organizations were expected to take the high ground. I remember being taught at my first job that we were never to criticize another organization by name when communicating with donors; instead we talked about what we did and why we believed it was the best approach, and left it to the donor to draw a conclusion about our competitor.

Well, that was then . . . and this is now. Scandals in many nations have left the public less convinced that the not-for-profit sector is effective and ethical. College debt has made nonprofit organizations less appealing places to work, and turnover is a serious problem (caused by employees who lack loyalty, of course, but also by leadership that doesn’t have a realistic means of measuring an employee’s contribution). Many of the job descriptions I read couldn’t be filled by 10 great fundraiser somehow molded into one candidate; it seems some leaders are expecting instant miracles instead of hard work that produces results over time

I suppose I sound like a curmudgeon, but it seems that both the leadership of nonprofit organizations and nonprofit employees need to take a step back and reevaluate where they are in relationship to the high ground by asking some tough questions.

Leadership should ask:

  1. What do we do that makes us different from other organizations doing similar work? Are we getting that message out, or are we guilty of sounding generic?
  2. Are we truly transparent about our outcomes or are we afraid that if our funders heard the truth they would stop supporting us?
  3. Are we investing in providing information to donors on how their gifts made a difference?
  4. Do we genuinely believe that our donors are essential to everything we accomplish or have we elevated “us” far above “them”?
  5. Why should someone work for us? Are we a career or just a stepping stone?
  6. Do we have realistic expectations—not too easy, but also not impossible—and are we regularly reviewing with each employee his or her progress toward achieving those expectations?
  7. Have we retained some ineffective employees out of loyalty, and if so, is this keeping us from retaining other employees who are making our work possible?

Nonprofit employees should ask themselves:

  1. Am I still “in love” with what the organization is doing, or am I simply in love with the regular paycheck?
  2. Am I being honest (at least to myself) about what the organization’s weaknesses are, and are those not significant enough to make me feel uncomfortable?
  3. Am I investing in my own continuous learning or do I expect my employer to take all responsibility for growing me in this field?
  4. Are the expectations I’m given realistic? If not, am I being honest with my managers about that or am I just hoping to slide by?
  5. Is the “tyranny of the urgent” keeping me from doing things that can increase our organization’s success longer term?
  6. Do I do my best to reflect our work with integrity, seeking out the facts even when they aren’t as exciting as those I envision?
  7. Do I sincerely consider our organization’s donors integral parts of what we accomplish?
  8. Am I proud to tell others that I work for this organization?
  9. Am I financially supporting this organization as I am able?

If you honestly answer these questions, you may see some gaps. This doesn’t point to failure or a need to resign, but instead should be seen as your “marching orders” to strategically make changes. After all, organizations are imperfect because they are led and staffed by imperfect people. But we have a high calling in the nonprofit sector and we need to never give up and also never settle. Instead, let’s aim for perfection and give 100 percent toward that target even if we know we may never get there. After all, every positive step we take only makes us that much better.

Originally published in npENGAGE.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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