Organizations Search for the Holy Grail — Mission Promise
Recently, the Turnkey and Blackbaud teams spent time together with various nonprofits with national/affiliate (chapter) organization structures. And that’s what we talked about: how national offices and affiliates/chapters do the best work together.
We hosted a range of organizations that were in the process of some kind of a transition. Some had a nascent national office with chapters that are fully volunteer (locally) driven. We’ll refer to these as “independent organizations.” Others were a fully integrated single corporation with consistent processes and programs throughout the country. We’ll call these the “consolidated organizations.” Every organization there was on a spectrum with these definitions at each end. No two were exactly alike or in the same place on the spectrum in terms of organizational alignment.
Otis, our in-house social psychologist, sat and listened through his psychology filter. I sat and listened with my 30 years of peer-to-peer experience filter. Vickie LoBello, Turnkey’s lead strategist, sat and listened with her 30 years of nonprofit leadership filter. We came to similar conclusions, through different routes, which I’ll share here.
From my perspective, the conversations were driven by data far less than I’d hoped they would be. In fact, among the independent organizations, the absence of data about relative performance (and relative impact on mission) between field offices was striking. It was almost as if that discussion –– and those comparisons –– were to be avoided. Among the consolidated organizations, there was deeper discussion about higher level things, like the mission, retention of fundraisers, donors and staff, and cost reduction.
In most independent organizations, the conversations were much more focused on retaining ownership of processes and programs, revenue share conflict with national and autonomy over local creativity. There was no one shouting, “We should become more aligned, more coordinated.” In fact, there was a notable lack of push in that direction, in spite of what the data made obvious: the consolidated organizations were larger, more pervasive in their communities, and dropped more to the mission’s bottom line in terms of revenue and programmatic impact.
From Vickie’s perspective, she saw a fallow field to be plowed. There was enormous opportunity on the part of independent organizations for higher revenue, lower cost and more mission impact. What was needed was greater alignment around one thing — meeting the mission promise.
Independent organizations had numerous obstacles in the path of that goal. Every donor wasn’t being given the strongest opportunity to align, every fundraiser was subject to poor marketing because local offices had few resources, and staff turned over because the path to advancement was not clear. These failures all represent opportunities to do more. And the road runs both ways. At the national offices, the lack of alignment often resulted in overlooking brilliant ideas and new processes coming out of the field. She saw the lack of a decision-making process about how national and local chapters interact. She saw the lack of desire to discuss what was important to keep local and what should be the purview of national for purposes of efficiency and ability to implement, like research and major gift management.
I saved Otis’s perspective for last, because the psychology really is the river that runs through it all. The psychological principle that makes it so difficult for the leadership of independent organizations to interact more effectively with each other is called loss aversion. What that refers to is the human tendency to feel the pain of losses twice as intensely as the pleasure associated with a gain. It makes people loathe to change; they experience it viscerally, as a gut reaction.
What is it that the state director of the Association for the Advancement of XYZ fears losing? What is it that makes their guts churn? They fear losing three things, which we know about from an area of positive psychology called self-determination theory:
- The connection to something bigger than oneself
- A sense of competence
In short, people value their independence and resist having others manage their affairs. State-level directors are usually deeply connected to supporters of the organization in their state or region. Finally, running their region and making their numbers gives them a sense of competence — that they are able to perform their role at a high level.
Here’s the really bad news: National leadership is subject to the same dynamic. They, too, want autonomy, connection to something bigger and the ability to show competence. Not being able to influence what happens at the field level thwarts all three.
It is a high wire act to balance the needs of the organization to fulfill its mission promise with these three human needs that are felt so deeply by directors in the field.
At the end of the day, we all came to the same conclusions: The mission promise does not drive enough decision-making. We humans often don’t know ourselves well enough to avoid these well-studied and well-documented pitfalls in our behavior.
Strong leadership able and willing to clearly articulate an organizational vision is the only route to organizational change and growth. That ride ain’t nothing but bumpy, but it’s imperative if our mission promises are worth meeting.
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.