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.
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a new book, Dollar Dash, on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.