Friday, March 21, 2014

Nonprofit Struggles - The Game is Missing Critical Players

America is overwhelmed with nonprofits and their constant need for funding.  With the last decade of economic downturn, the needs have increased while funding pools stagnate and dry up.   

But, this is what I've noticed.  Sitting in a large hotel conference center this week with two hundred nonprofit executives brought forth some new revelations about the game being played across the field.  As an out-of-state expert spent the afternoon training on the finer points of telling the nonprofit challenge story to elicit more donations, I was struck by the contrasts.     

The executives in the room know each other.  They tend to gather at the same workshops.  Many have been leading their organizations for years, devoting their careers toward improving the lives of fellow Kansans.  But, they are distinctly not from the cultural groups they help.  There is a comradery amongst them as they share the stories of the pain, loss and struggles of their clients and how their organization works to understand and alleviate challenges.  But, also a quiet pride in the fact that they, themselves, do not suffer such challenges.

None of the conference participants live the story.  They're at the workshop to learn to tell the story; to write the script for the actors who will be telling the story to donors.  Like journalists.  Flies on the wall.  Reporting a story.  Each executive lives in solid middle class home, drives a reliable, if not beautiful, vehicle, has a bank account with a positive balance and network of support through peers, alumni and middle class families of origin.  At the lunch break, they revert back to their personal stories; the emotional stress of sending their first child off to college, an upcoming vacation, their top of the line medical care experience, or their best time ever in the recent marathon.  They share multiple degrees in education, specialization and certifications, and years of focus in adding to their skills and tools.  Luxuries their clients would never dream of owning.

After lunch, the executives go back to working on the task at hand; building convincing and real stories to tell their donors and supporters.  They feel genuine empathy for the cause they selected to devote their time to - but they remain outsiders; foreigners who visit far away countries well equipped with translation apps and guide books; movie goers who shed tears as they leave the theater and lock their doors as they head for the safety of home.   

Everything I know about solving community and cultural issues builds off the premise that the beginning step is to see the people who are living the problem as their own solution.  The solution cannot be brought in from the outside.  Every program developed to serve "them" has limited positive effect.  "Them" must develop their own program and implement it themselves because they best know the terrain.  They appreciate and adopt new tools to overcome challenges.  Outside resources are certainly beneficial in creating desperately needed time and space for the seeds of change to sprout and gain strength.  Those who come from a place of safety and health are great partners and leaders to those who have heavier burdens to carry.  But, the people of the problem must be the people who own the solution.  

I am walking away from the nonprofit fundraising field.  I don't fit in.  I am exhausted by the posturing and pretending to fit in exercise each time I try to interact and build bridges.  There is no need for bridges.  No one is looking for them.  Nonprofits are disconnected from the people they are claiming to serve and its is the standard accepted.   

I am a solid product of child abuse, poverty and ignorance.  I worked my way through college to excel in economics, politics and community organization so I could help change the lives of others like me.  But, the field is set.  The players are selected from rosters I will never be on.  The season schedule was set decades ago and is not open for discussion.   No one is recruiting for players like me and I will very rarely come across another player in the game who plays for the reasons I did or is able to connect with me at the level needed to shift the picture.  We own the problem.  For some reason, we are blocked from owning the solution.   

At least, please, learn to tell my story right.  Your donors can't see through the bull because they, by necessity, come from the same culture you do.  But, I can.  It's disturbing.  You wouldn't get a degree in rug making and then go to India and claim to be an expert on rug making, right?    

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