Flower Child and Conformity: National and Local Chapters Control Issues
Conformity sounds like a bad word in our "follow your passion" society.
Being a flower child from way back, I understand the aversion to the word. I have done my share of railing at "the man." But in nonprofit, nonconformity can mean sacrificing the well-being of those served by your mission. Conformity in our world means consolidation of execution method, if not actual entity.
There are several legal structures at work in national nonprofits, which I will generalize very casually here:
- National can go straight to hell. If they come up with an idea, it is a bad one.
- I have some dictates from national, but we do some stuff autonomously at the chapter/region/district/state level.
- I have to do every single thing national tells me.
The structures noted above are sometimes also a path many national organizations take in a tortured, linear fashion. There is continual pressure from local to hamper or derail consolidation, and that is an energy-sucking thing to fight, taking energy and resources from the mission.
Why do local staffs fight consolidation? Opposition only has a few flavors: First, I am afraid you will take my job. Second, I am afraid you will take my choice. Dead last is I am afraid you won't make good decisions for this nonprofit.
I lobby national and local entities for considered consolidation. I completely get that we need to buy every envelope at the lowest cost possible. I get that application of a program has to have some consistency or we can't measure anything and thus can't improve. What I don't get is why we would ever shut down our R&D departments.
Experimentation at the local level is the most powerful way to find new and better ways of doing things, and to understand how to adapt to our changing environment. In the process of consolidation, we are almost universally failing to set up systems in which good ideas can bubble up, having been created locally, to be tested nationally.
We fail as an industry to listen to volunteer leadership and field staff when they give us great information because we are blinded by our mandate to consolidate and our own ideas. We fail to look at the unfamiliar or out-of-process approaches that come from the field because they are not easy to fit into our current national model. These variances are a pain, and we avoid them and discourage, even fire people who persist with their ideas. Should they be afraid they will lose their choices? They should be more than afraid; they should be terrified given our industry's biggest players' histories.
Is it a pain to successfully manage ideas, keep the good ones and not demoralize the originators of the ones that don't work? Yes, it is hard. But if you don't create systems to foster and manage innovation (another word for "idea"), then you eventually become the old nonprofit sitting in the corner refusing to use email, with a pager and an Excel spreadsheet keeping track of your donors.
By building systems to foster innovation, you may not be able to preserve jobs, but you will preserve some form of choice, and you will make local staffs feel heard, which makes them think you are informed, which helps them believe you'll make good decisions.
Until we can create systems that foster innovation — and not just when NATIONAL PEOPLE are innovating — then I guess I'm going to keep railing against "the man," even though I might be one.
Katrina VanHuss has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Otis joined in the fun in 2013 as Turnkey’s resident human behavior expert. One thing led to another, and now as a married couple, they almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism and human decision-making, much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Through their work at Turnkey, the pair works with the likes of the American Lung Association, Best Buddies, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, using human behavioral tendencies and recognition to create attachment and high fundraising in volunteers.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P and Peer to Peer Forum, and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, Dollar Dash. They live in Richmond, Va.