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The Nonprofit Sector Needs to Get Over The Fear Thing

By Nell Edgington

tightropeIt needs to be said, and I’m going to say it. The nonprofit sector must get over the fear thing. The sector is known for being risk-averse, and that comes from a lack of resources. I get it.

But it’s time to move beyond that. I’m starting a new series today about the many different forms of Nonprofit Fear and how to move the sector beyond them.

Because there are many:

  • Fear of making an investment
  • Fear of change
  • Fear of losing a donor
  • Fear of being honest
  • Fear of money
  • Fear of competition

…and the list goes on. Because these fears are so crippling and have the potential to really hold nonprofits back, I want to unpack each one in order to start a conversation about how we move past them.

So today, let’s discuss one of the most crippling, which is the fear of making an investment.

Most nonprofits live hand-to-mouth. They exist in a hamster wheel of raising just enough money to keep going. But if they took a step back, marshaled their resources and made an investment in real transformation they could break free from that hamster wheel.

Nonprofits come to me with a long list of woes: we don’t have enough money, our board isn’t doing anything, our funders are worn out, we can’t meet client needs, we are just getting by, we are worn out. They desperately want to break out of this endless cycle of not having enough and not being able to do enough. I explain that in order to make a significant change, in order to break free from this beast, in order to really transform business as usual, they must make an investment.

Not just an investment in help, but an investment of time, energy, and mind share. They need to rally their board, staff, funders, and advocates around a transformation plan. They need to be willing to take a risk and make an investment in a new way.

Some nonprofits decide that the risk is too great. That instead of overcoming their fear of investment they would rather pull back and continue on as usual. They may still cobble together a strategic plan, or write up a new board recruitment policy, or put together a fundraising plan, but nothing has really changed. They are still thinking and operating in the way they always have.

But the nonprofits that I do work with decide to take that first step. They decide to put a stake in the ground and chart a new direction for their organization. They release the status quo and instead make an investment in their future, a better future for their organization and the community change they seek. They are willing to ask hard questions, to make hard decisions, to take risks, to try a new approach.

Instead of shrinking from the opportunity, they stand up and say “enough is enough.” They decide that in order to achieve the vision that sparked their organization’s beginning long ago, they must make an investment in their future.

Photo Credit: briandeadly

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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13 Comments to The Nonprofit Sector Needs to Get Over The Fear Thing

March 20, 2013

As a friend of mine likes to say “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”. Fear comes from a lack of understanding of the outcomes which comes from inadequate planning. And Nell is dead on when she says not all planning is good either. When I’ve seen the traditional process used I’ve noticed that it doesn’t push hard enough to challenge assumptions or the obstacles that need to be crossed before a goal can be achieved. We’re in the midst of a major strategic planning process right now and my best take away is the realization that outstanding organizations only do great programming. From that realization we’re focusing growth, shedding unproductive tasks and building partnerships to help us make sure every program we undertake has the capacity to be a model program.

For anyone struggling to make time for this activity, pick up a copy of Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and within a few weeks you’ll have a different perspective.

Rush Soccer
March 20, 2013

Nice article, fear holds a lot of us back… Rush Soccer’s very business model is a great example of what success you can create with a little courage.

Our club was started from scratch, once upon the time in the 70’s. After much success, we decided to merge with a nearby club – something fairly unheard of at the time. Years later, we would start to expand outside county lines, which was strongly advised against by Board Members and State Youth Soccer officials. Many years and surges in growth later, we decided to expand outside state lines and adopt clubs throughout the United States. We had more naysayers than supporters – they thought it was suicide. No youth soccer organization had ever expanded. We didn’t have the resources. It couldn’t be done.

Long story short: today we are the largest youth soccer organization in the world, with clubs in over half the states and 20+ international countries…. And counting. We grow every day!

If they say it can’t be done, let that be an indication of a great opportunity to do something everyone is else too scared or lazy to do.

Nell Edgington
March 20, 2013

Andrew, I’m glad to hear that you are pushing harder and stretching yourselves and your organization. Good for you!

And you all at Rush Soccer have provided a great example of what I’m talking about, thanks for sharing!

Linda Chave
March 20, 2013

Couldn’t agree more – especially when it comes to confronting misguided trends involving BIG DATA and GROUP THINK. I’ve just taken to speaking my piece and letting the chips fall where they may and have had a surprisingly positive reaction to my “frankness.” Turns out lots of folks are just waiting for someone to say “the Emperor has no clothes.” I’ve studied too long, witnessed too much and currently work way too hard to simply shake my head yes when it comes to big, important and often far-reaching issues. With such limited resources at our disposal today, it’s really time that the non-profit sector stop deferring to funders and start using its expertise to create more viable, vibrant solutions to age old problems.

Nell Edgington
March 21, 2013

Good for you, Linda. And I’m delighted to hear that you’ve received such a positive reaction to your frankness. I agree with you, it’s time for all of us to tell it like it is.

March 21, 2013

The new Working Hard and Working Well book is an excellent guide to confronting some of these issues. But I have to say that I think the single biggest obstacle to a transformative nonprofit sector is government and foundation funders refusing to make multi-year general operating support grants, and the refusal of funders to embrace the full cost of actually creating meaningful social change. This is particularly true in the human services sector.
Nonprofits work in a system that creates all the fears you list. Our efforts should be focused on changing that system, rather than telling nonprofits to “be fearless”, as some would advocate. The funders are where the problem starts and where it will need to be first addressed.

Nell Edgington
March 21, 2013

Dan, I completely agree with you that funders are partly to blame for the dysfunction of the sector. And some of that is changing as more funders start experimenting with new things (capacity capital grants, longer-term funding, less strings). But I also think that nonprofits hold themselves back at times too, and we have to recognize and address that. Being bold means that you step outside of the resources currently at hand and chart a new direction. As I always say, instead of asking the question “What can we do with what we can raise?” ask the question “How much do we need to raise to accomplish OUR GOALS?”

March 21, 2013

Yes, I agree. Certainly nonprofits need to dial back some of the happy talk about “ending this or that problem by 2020” and then acting like it can be done with an organizational budget of a few million dollars. For most of those problems, we either need to find (massive) new revenue streams or recalibrate our goals.
I just noticed you had already mentioned working hard and working well. Fantastic book. I think the difficulty of the discipline involved in such an approach is wildly underestimated and impossible to achieve when an organization is afraid, particularly afraid of being honest. Again, I think much of the fear is understandable and natural given the larger funding environment, but it is on both parties to move beyond the dysfunctional dynamic you rightly observe.

March 26, 2013

Great stuff, Nell! I’m looking forward to your dismantling of nonprofit fear in the rest of this series.

You’re right though: Sometimes the fear is self-imposed. On my front, I elaborate on the fear of taking a more creative and holistic approach to internal collaboration so that programs and services can have real impact.

Dan above slightly touches on this where, aside from NOT having the funds to “solve” large social issues by 20XX, some organizations develop initiatives that are disconnected from the complexity of what designers call “wicked problems” — problems that are massive in scale, ill-defined in HOW to solve, with ever-changing requirements.

It’s true that sometimes a scaling back and recalibration of goals is needed. It’s surprising how many new organizations charge into the unknown without a thorough understanding of their mission space. And before they know it, so much time, energy, and money were funneled into the wrong things.

This also plays into “the fear of being honest.” When a new collaborative process is introduced — whether it’s design thinking or participatory design etc — it WILL uncover information gaps and hidden assumptions in the mission. In the end, it usually reveals those who really wants to move forward, and those who just want to keep things as they are.

Nell Edgington
March 26, 2013

Thanks Bryann. Yes, we absolutely have to understand how an individual nonprofit’s work fits into the larger marketplace of issues and actors. Nonprofits must understand what else is going on in their “mission space” and figure out how to contribute to that larger arena and chart their direction from that knowledge.

Carol Leone
July 10, 2013

As usual, it is assumed that all non-profits are social service organizations. Arts and cultural/historical non-profits have the additional issue of all too often being regarded as not essential to the life and vitality of a society.

Nell Edgington
July 10, 2013


I think any nonprofit can be regarded as not essential if they don’t connect the dots about how what they do is important and significant. Nonprofits must answer the question “to what end?”. It is no longer enough to do good work, nonprofits must articulate the change they are trying to create and why people should care. I talk more about this here:

[…] Edgington wrote in her blog, Social Velocity, “The Nonprofit Sector Needs to Get Over the Fear Thing” (March 20, 2013). I urge you to read the post, which is as valid today as it was last […]

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