Keeping Perspective in Nonprofit Management

Why did you get into nonprofit management? Was it to become a bold-faced name in the society pages? For a summer home in the Hamptons, perhaps? Or was it for a different reason — were you motivated, as so many are, by the desire to make a positive impact and to help people?

I’ve been involved in nonprofits for my entire career, and in all of those years, nearly every client, coworker and student has been there for a bigger reason than just a paycheck. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a return to a disturbing and saddening trend – nonprofit CEOs and executive directors caught with their hands in the till. Although I’ll decline to name examples, I’m sure you can think of a few.

Why do so many heads of nonprofits get into trouble?


Don’t be distracted by the trappings of wealth

I think it has to do with perspective. When you work as hard as many nonprofit leaders do, you may become disenchanted with the discrepancy between your lifestyle and many of your biggest donors. Seeing the chairman of your board drive up to the board meeting every week in his $90,000 car may be a distraction. Although you entered the business of nonprofits to help people, the allure of a brass chandelier in your office can become blinding, and the money to pay for it seems readily available, although earmarked for a program for children.

To counteract this siren’s call, it’s important to maintain your perspective. Rather than meet at a pricey restaurant or club for lunch, for example, one client of mine had VIPs eat the same food the nonprofit serves its consumers, right in the same cafeteria. The lunch effectively reminded the donors who their efforts and support were helping and their reasons for involvement – all the while keeping the heads of the organization humble. Doing so allowed everyone involved to be inspired and motivated by the organization’s real purpose.

While I can’t say for sure what motivates the reprehensible behavior of nonprofit heads who skim or cheat, I know that these episodes offer an important lesson. A career of nonprofit management can be very high stress and often underpaid, relative to your major donors. Rather than succumb to the pressure and temptations, the best thing for a nonprofit lead to do is to remain true to the goal of his/her organization and to remember why he/she chose that path. Suddenly, a brass chandelier seems less attractive.

Walking the Corridor: Finding PR Stories Where Nobody’s Looking

When acting in a PR capacity, many people struggle with the problem of finding stories. Every organization wants press – but what strikes you as newsworthy about your operation might not seem quite so fresh to a journalist. Where, then, do you find something to pitch?

A very fuzzy journalist

A very fuzzy journalist

One option, of course, is to make the story happen yourself. If nothing new is going on, think of the kind of story you’d like to read and guide the organization toward it. Sometimes this works out and sometimes it doesn’t. But the best kinds of stories are the ones that serve themselves up organically – complete and irresistible, like catnip for journalists, and never where you expect to find them.

Just because the best stories happen by accident doesn’t mean you’ll find them by accident, though. Our colleague Roberta makes a point of visiting clients as often as possible, learning everyone’s name from the reception room to the boardroom, and stopping to chat. She calls it “walking the corridor.”

Even if it’s easier and more convenient to conduct all your business over the phone or via email, those intentional channels only bring you the first kind of story: the ones that you and your client expect. The real gold only ever comes to you when you’re not (appearing like you are) looking for it. It’s like keeping your eyes in a softer focus to look for new patterns, or, as Ann Handley puts it, “seeing content moments everywhere.” 

From the New York Daily News

From the New York Daily News

One of Roberta’s stories, for example, was a grade-A “people story” about a resident at a client’s elder care facility. A veteran of World War II, this gentleman took public transit by himself into Manhattan at the ripe old age of 90, in his old uniform, to help out at the Occupy Wall Street protests. Incredibly, nobody knew about it until he mentioned it to Roberta while she was on-site! He simply never thought to tell anyone, because he wasn’t involved in the traditional PR loop – Roberta just happened to be there when he shared the story of his experiences. It ended up widely reported and shared.

Of course, many trips don’t include such wonderful gifts of stories wrapped up with bows. They’re a bonus, not an expectation, but you have to be in the right place at the right time. Besides, you can never have too many friends. So the next time you’re stuck for a story, don’t go back to the drawing board – walk the corridor and chat with the folks at the water cooler instead.