Breaking the Nonprofit ‘Middle Child Syndrome’
Does your organization suffer from the “middle child syndrome?” Middle children often feel that they are neglected—that it doesn’t matter what they do, they are never going to be great. They sometimes can’t figure out how to be extraordinary. They can’t break out of the middle child syndrome.
Turnkey’s lead strategist, Vickie Lobello, works with a lot of nonprofit peer-to-peer fundraising clients who can’t seem to get over the hump. They are mired in the middle, even slipping backward. She struggled with it herself as the chief development officer at St. Baldrick’s. Vickie describes how it works this way…
“Early in the life of an event launch, it seems like the money appears. Often the organization is holding events in multiple places and supporting them from the national office or local offices. The activity catches the imagination of the audience and takes off—things are good! Each year there is solid growth, which allows the organization to add staff and build on the momentum.
The organization rides the wave for five, six, maybe seven years, when things start to level off. The growth seen in previous years is flat, maybe even slips and starts to decline. You’ve reached a crossroads, but there is still significant revenue coming through the door, so no one is pulling the fire alarm.
Year two of flat or negative growth ups the ante. The management team begins to realize that what got them there won’t get them any further. The board is conflicted. They have projected growth based on past years’ performance, and now the goals aren’t being met. Still, they tend to look at the problem as something that has gone wrong with the original model (‘it worked great last year’), so they try to fix it through staff changes or in other ways. In reality, the original model could only take you so far, and now you have a choice: manage the project differently or maintain the status quo and face further declines.
One client who is facing this type of challenge is raising significant revenue from their peer-to-peer series. The events are implemented by local offices, and there are minimal constraints or coordination. Additionally, the event model is not well defined. In the past two years, the revenue has declined, and the organization is faced with the decision whether to evolve the model and how they are implementing it or maintain the status quo.
This scenario is very familiar to us. Most of our clients experience the middle child syndrome. What got them there won’t get them any farther.”
This situation is also very common in the for-profit world as well. Of the 30 million or so for-profit companies in the U.S., only around 4 percent ever get to $1 million in revenue. Only 0.4 percent ever make it to $10 million. Research indicates that there are similar ratios in other developed countries.
For-profits refer to this as the “growth paradox”—the belief that as the company (and revenues) gets larger, things should get easier, but they don’t. They get more difficult.
Is your nonprofit a $1 million or a $10 million organization that can’t break through to the next level? First, celebrate your success; you are already in rarified air, even if you are a middle child. Organizations that are experiencing the middle child syndrome have been managed well enough to achieve a certain level of success, but to break through to the next level management practices need to change.
The solution(s) typically lies in the process, people or product. First, understanding where the greatest areas of opportunity are and then acting on those opportunities in a purposeful, systematic way can ensure your organization can grow your peer-to-peer fundraising.
Professor Larry E. Greiner’s classic Harvard Business Review article, “Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow,” provides a great description of the path that companies go down as they grow, and the reasons why they stall. From the article:
“The problems at these companies are rooted more in past decisions than in present events or market dynamics. Yet management, in its haste to grow, often overlooks such critical developmental questions as: Where has our organization been? Where is it now? What do the answers to these questions mean for where it is going? …The behavior of individuals is determined primarily by past events and experiences, rather than by what lies ahead.”
What’s the takeaway? Recognizing that you’re a middle child is the first step to getting your organization to where you want it to be.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.