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When A Funder Takes Your Nonprofit Off Course

By Nell Edgington



It’s fairly common knowledge that in the nonprofit sector the relationship between funders and nonprofit leaders is often fraught. A power imbalance between those with the purse strings and those without can sometimes lead to poor decisions about a nonprofit’s future direction.

The other day I was advising a nonprofit leader — let’s call him “Tim” — about whether he should expand his after-school program to a new school district, an expansion that one of his key foundation funders was championing. Tim was intrigued by the idea because due to a mix of circumstances (high need, proximity to other programs, etc.) investing in this school district had recently become popular among foundations.

But Tim was conflicted because, through years of experience implementing his very successful program, he knew that this new school district would not be a good fit for his program. The school district leadership was not fully invested in Tim’s program and approach, the district was located too far away for the nonprofit to ensure program quality, and the expansion would stretch Tim’s staff too thin, to name just a few of the issues. Despite the drawbacks, Tim was seriously considering expanding to this new district for the sole reason that one of his funders was really keen to see Tim’s program there.

This is a recipe for disaster. It’s an example of a nonprofit leader paying too much attention to the noise. But most troubling, this is an example of a nonprofit leader elevating a funder’s opinion above what the nonprofit leader knows is right.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it.

As a nonprofit leader, there are so many interested parties, so many stakeholders, so many voices telling you what is right and what is best. But the problem is that often those voices have inserted their, or their organization’s, self interest. That’s not to say that this foundation leader was acting with malice. Rather I would bet that he was simply acting with a lack of complete information. Perhaps the foundation leader thought, from his limited viewpoint, that Tim’s proven program would be the perfect addition to this troubled school district. But the foundation leader didn’t understand the larger dynamics at play. And if Tim kept quiet he would actually be doing both himself and the foundation a disservice by keeping his expertise out of the equation.

So when faced with a critical decision (and so many competing voices) how do you get clear about the right move for your nonprofit and then articulate that potentially unpopular decision to others?

First, you have to get quiet. I’m serious — take a walk, turn off your devices, go out in the woods, whatever it takes. You simply cannot make a critical strategic decision amid the ringing phones, your staff’s questions, the constant ping of emails, or the lure of social media.

Once you’ve gotten truly quiet ask yourself: “Which of the possible directions facing our nonprofit is most likely to increase our ability to achieve our desired outcomes?” If you haven’t yet articulated your nonprofit’s desired outcomes, then you need a Theory of Change, which is an excellent guiding document when facing critical strategic decisions like this.

In Tim’s case, if he had gotten quiet and asked himself this question, the answer would have been clear. An expansion to the new school district would actually decrease his nonprofit’s ability to achieve their desired outcomes because 1) they were unlikely to achieve those outcomes with the new students (for all of the reasons outlined above), and 2) the additional drain on his staff would likely decrease the outcomes they were already achieving with their current students.

Once you have arrived at your answer (not the answer someone else wants) articulate (on paper if it’s helpful) why this is the right decision for your nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes. Then convince a few board champions of your argument. Finally meet one-on-one with your funder, or whoever is trying to take you away from what you know to be the right path. In a clear, evidence-based, confident way explain the reasons behind the decision you have made.

Making the right decision for your organization might be terrifying at first – especially if you risk losing a key funder. But trust me, making the right decision will put your nonprofit in a much better place in the long run.

In Tim’s case, deciding not to expand to the new school district could result in one of two things: 1) he could convince his funder that this is the right decision and through Tim’s honesty and strategic decision-making solidify the funder’s long-term support, or 2) he could lose a funder who doesn’t have his nonprofit’s best interests at heart. And if Tim has a solid financing plan for his nonprofit, the loss of that single funder does not have to be a death knell for the organization.

Either way he has put his nonprofit on a stronger, more sustainable path.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), 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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4 Comments to When A Funder Takes Your Nonprofit Off Course

Michael F Cade
January 30, 2018

Great points Nell, it is so important for nonprofit leaders to step back from issues like this one and check their perspective. It is easy to get caught up in enthusiasm for a new idea (especially one that has funding attached to it).

In my experience this type of situation is also called “Shiny Object Syndrome” and can be associated with funders, grants and even earned income. Pressure to perform can lead to bad decision making and unwise risk-taking by making leaders see only the upside and blinding them to the downside. Boards can exacerbate this by creating goals and objectives not rooted in reality or by latching onto situations like the one you describe.

Thanks for sharing your expertise, glad you are back! –mike

Robin Carton
January 31, 2018

As a recovering funder myself, I know that the power imbalance between funders and grantees is real. And when a funder says, “well, we don’t want to tell our grantees what to do, but … ” – that is an abuse of their power. Too often organizations expand or change direction at the urging of a funder. And it never ends well. I say stick to your mission, since funders come and go like the wind – but your program can’t.

Nell Edgington
January 31, 2018

Thanks Mike, it’s good to be back! Yes, I completely agree, boards and funders all add to this problem of bad strategic decision-making. Nonprofit leaders need to take a pause and stand up for what they know is the right way forward.

Nell Edgington
January 31, 2018

Amen Robin! And I hope more funders like you recognize this truth.

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