The Most Important People In A Nonprofit's Existence

A combination of factors compels me to once again consider the nature of the nonprofit world that has so imprinted my working life for years — albeit less actively now as an struggling elder author than my heyday when busy as a workshop trainer, consultant, foundation staff member. My baseline throughout has been profound respect for the many people from the sector with whom I have worked — especially those representing local grassroots organizations committed to improving the quality of the lives of the people for whom they exist, often people living outside the margins of reasonable comfort and sustenance.  

First off, I'd suggest that the notion that nonprofits have been impacted by the pandemic lines itself up with the reality that we as a species are confronting challenging times marked by predicaments in abundance. Without getting into specifics on both fronts here and now, I want to suggest that the efforts of those very nonprofits I so admire comprise a necessary response to the challenges unfolding for all of us. The work of people gathered in nonprofits mission-driven to serve others seeking help remains as important as ever it was. Perhaps even more.

Further, I recently came across a Facebook video wherein a well-known wielder of nonprofit wisdom shouts that nonprofit board members must always understand that "the needs of the organization always come first, not your interest in a particular program or geography" and that each board member needs to come into the board room wearing an organizational hat and no other..."  

My reaction was decidedly mixed, beginning by muttering you gotta be kidding me. But then again who am I to quibble about the good sense of urging volunteer board members to focus on the mother ship?  

The basis for my triggered discord springs from my sense that many who visualize and hold forth about nonprofits, do so without fully appreciating the breadth of such organizations — by which I mean the many times donors and the staff/board mix are front and center, without so much as a word about the place of community members in the mix of human beings clustered around the organization. The ones on the receiving end of the services a nonprofit is likely to be focused on delivering. The ones for whom the nonprofit should have been created in the first place, only now to be akin to an afterthought. Or in the case of the doyen of Facebook just cited, no thought. She didn't say a word about such folks while extolling the needs of the organization!

The frame for my grouchiness here rests on the instructiveness of three publications, each of which I consult periodically — and did again now — when contemplating nonprofits in these challenging times: The First Charity, by Robert Matthews Johnson; Positive Thinking in a Dark Age, by Jim Tull; and my own book, Functional and Funded, Securing Your Nonprofit's Assets From The Inside Out. Let me continue.

Johnson's book, written in 1988, is every bit as relevant all these years later. His bona fides include years as consultant and executive among Chicago area grant making foundations. Among the book's many virtues, the following gets at the basis for my respect as well as contributing to the theme I'm pursuing here. "Philanthropy is attracted to that professional leadership. When it does choose to try to help poor people, it prefers to fund professionals in their service occupations rather than fund any initiatives that come largely from poor people themselves," and "we have made a decision in this country that service delivery should not be based on an exchange of mutual adjustment with citizens but on the authority and expertise of those who deliver services."  

Powerful, thought-provoking stuff. And, as mentioned previously, I was privileged enough to be one of those very professionals interacting in a variety of ways with people whose common marker was seeking resources to make life better in their communities. Still and all, were I to sit at his knee, I'd offer Mr. Johnson something of a rejoinder that I took seriously our maxim — maximum feasible participation of low-income people in confronting poverty — when I first entered the nonprofit realm in 1965 as part of LBJ's ill-fated Great Society & War on Poverty at both the federal and local levels in the mid-to-late 1960's. While history leveled my naïveté, the prospect of mutuality among those of all stripes in dealing with inequality stuck with me.  

Later, when working as a Program Officer at a large urban Community Foundation, I can share that the favorite part of my work was when I helped establish a Funding Information Center through which regularly scheduled gatherings of those interested in seeking foundation funding were convened. During these sessions I suggested six ways to Sunday that the organizations they represented approach us with a proposal describing a partnership between both parties while conveying my belief that the foundation needed them every bit as much as they us — a mutuality rub off.  

Add to this Jim Tull's extraordinary book of 14 essays, published five years ago. It should be obvious by the title that Tull's book is not written solely for people in and around nonprofits (whereas mine is) but is couched in the wisdom of his life experiences, much of which germinated in his work in nonprofits. Where we share common ground is in visualizing nonprofits in a larger systemic context, though his bona fides are as gritty as mine have been comfortable. I was reminded of this when reading once again of his years at a soup kitchen and homeless shelter where he was, as he put it, "...trying to escape my own affluence and privilege as well as meet the basic human needs and challenge the political powers." His kitchen/shelter in Rhode Island; my Community Action Agency in Connecticut...

Then there is his essay, Shall The Poor Always Be With Us?, in which he asserts that "we don't want poverty to go away for at least two broad reasons." The first is that "our own employment increasingly depends on it." Bingo! The second "is that many of us, at least, need a place to actively express our care and compassion." I admit it.  

He goes on to distinguish mutual care as having been supplanted by service delivery that he characterizes as "the attempt to meet needs outside the context of community," culminating the essay with the belief that "organizations committed to reducing poverty should emphasize strategies that regenerate the kind of self-reliant, give support/get support community life that can regenerate the kind of wealth that we have paved over with a product-driven culture of winners and losers."

His version of powerful, thought-provoking stuff allows me to work my own book into the mix as my rejoinder of a sort here. Based on years of delivering workshops and built for people seeking resources to keep nonprofits going, I wrote it to be a value-punctuated alternative to the how-to-do-grantwriting tomes that have proliferated. Although I knew nothing of Jim Tull at the time, my approach to the business of creating persuasive funding proposals might pass muster in his regard for the value of community — and reaffirm the point I’m making about the often missing human beings needed to consider a wholesome nonprofit organization.  

From page 69, “Bear in mind, as well, that there may be divergence in the outlook and experiences of staff in nonprofits and the participants to be involved when it comes to formulating programs for which funds will be sought. So, the authenticity of what materializes in our proposals is much less susceptible to dispute if provisions are made to acknowledge participant perspective. One way of accomplishing this is by substantively involving the intended beneficiaries of proposed programs in the planning of such efforts and, for that matter in the day-today organizational operations. Think of this as running programs with the folks for whom our organization exists rather than running programs at them.”

Those of us who enjoy the blessing of a vital affiliation with a nonprofit, particularly the ones for whom this has provided financial compensation, would do well to never lose sight of the most important people in the mix. And from my perspective, that goes for anyone involved in writing their version of the most persuasive funding proposal in the realm, guided of course by what my book has to say about the matter.

Harvey B Chess
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