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Why Nonprofits Must Stop Being So Grateful

By Nell Edgington

gratitudeThe other day I was talking to a nonprofit executive director who was delighted because he finally convinced a reluctant board member to become board chair. Over the past year, this board member had been delinquent in his meeting attendance and fundraising requirements. But since the executive director had no other viable candidates for the chairmanship, he was incredibly grateful that this board member finally relented and agreed to become chair.

What kind of crazy is this?

Gratitude is being thankful when someone performs a helpful act. But in the nonprofit sector there is such a pervasive power imbalance that misplaced gratitude, or gratitude for acts that are actually NOT helpful, often gets in the way of real work.

If a nonprofit leader acts grateful when she should actually voice frustration or disappointment, she is cutting off authentic conversations that could result in more effective partnerships.

Nonprofit leaders could stand to be a little less grateful for:

Board Members Who Aren’t Thrilled to Serve
If a board member doesn’t want to be there, and they are making that blatantly obvious (by not showing up to board meetings, not meeting their give/get requirement, or derailing board meetings with self-serving tangents) then take them at their word. Stop thanking them for serving and instead have a conversation about their poor performance. Ask them to change or resign. Don’t be grateful that you have 15 warm bodies listed on your letterhead. Each ineffective board member takes up space that could be filled by a committed and productive member. So take a hard look at the actual performance of each board member and build a board for which you can actually be grateful.

Donors Who Don’t Fund Real Costs 
There is (I hope) a growing recognition in the sector that you cannot have high-quality, results-driven solutions without the appropriate staff, technology, systems and infrastructure behind them. Not every donor is there yet – by a long shot – but when a donor wants to fund the programs they love, you need to educate them about all of the costs involved in those programs. And if they want the “program” without the “overhead,” explain that the two are inextricably bound and an inferior investment will yield an inferior result.

Superfluous In-Kind Gifts
Nonprofits cannot be the dumping ground for the things companies want to get rid of while they enjoy a fat tax write-off. If a donor wants to give your literacy program boxes of age-inappropriate books, or your food bank out-of-date Halloween candy, or your management team old, slow computers, just say “No”. You shouldn’t be grateful for something that makes your job harder. Take the opportunity to educate the potential donor about the work you do, how important it is, and the most effective ways to support that work.  And if they just want the tax write off, suggest which more appropriate gifts (including money) would earn it.

An Inexperienced Fundraiser
I see this all the time. A nonprofit won’t pay a market rate salary for a high-calibre fundraising director so they recruit an inexperienced person who eventually fails. Instead of being grateful that your board will let you hire an underpaid fundraiser, or grateful that someone is willing to take the position, talk to the board about what is really going on. If you don’t make fundraising part of everyone’s job and hire someone to truly lead those efforts, you are simply setting the organization up for failure. Make your financial model a key part of your overall strategy and then hire (and pay appropriately) the right person necessary to lead that financial strategy.

Rise from bended knee with confidence in yourself, your staff, and your social change work to articulate what you really need. To be truly successful, a nonprofit leader needs a board that will move mountains, donors who fully fund and believe in the organization, and a staff that can knock it out of the park. And you get there by being honest about, not grateful for, the roadblocks in your way.

Photo Credit: Victor Bezrukov

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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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10 Comments to Why Nonprofits Must Stop Being So Grateful

dan rodriguez
September 30, 2014

Great post and timely conversation with those who sincerely care about your non-profits well-being.

September 30, 2014

Can I add – quit being so grateful to your vendors, including benefit providers? I have seen this at too many nonprofits to believe it’s isolated. These are not your clients, and it is *your* responsibility to look out for the best interests of your organization.

Nell Edgington
September 30, 2014

Thanks Dan and Rebecca!

Patrick McGaughey
October 2, 2014

This is a true “Come to Jesus” article for all NPO executives and volunteers to read. The title is perfect; we must be grateful for contributions but don’t over do it and be “so grateful” when the contribution doesn’t even come close to covering what is needed. Keep in mind it’s still the NPO’s responsibility to negotiate for a complete contribution i.e. donation, membership et. al. but this is one of those “flashlight at high noon” moments where you are illuminating what we can already see. Thank you.

Nell Edgington
October 3, 2014

Thanks Patrick. I’m glad the post was illuminating. Let’s hope nonprofit leaders see the need to be less grateful as well.

Jill Gonzalez
October 23, 2014

Thank you SO much for this timely and important advice. I know these facts, but needed to read them today. I am very thankful for you column!

Nell Edgington
October 23, 2014

Jill, you are very welcome. I’m glad to hear that these posts are helpful. And thank you for the important work you do!

October 24, 2014

Nell you are preaching! Thanks for the reminder to work hard for our caused by investing and demanding for the best people. I share your same philosophies and would love to have a conversation. Thanks for the wake up call!

Nell Edgington
October 24, 2014

Lenita, you are very welcome. Thanks!

[…] a nonprofit leader who doesn’t have at least some frustration with her board and many are resigned to their board’s deep dysfunction. It is extremely difficult to corral a group of volunteers, to be sure, but instead of accepting […]

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