If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you!
Lesson 2: Don’t lose sight of the larger goal.
I don’t know what the corporate sector is like, but a lot of people who work in aid and development are in it because they believe in a vision. (Note: I normally only hang out with people who give a shit, so this post may be slightly biased towards their frame of reference.) They believe in making the world a better place. (Hell, maybe you’d even say you joined the non-profit world from the corporate sector because you wanted a job with meaning.)
Local aid and development workers want to push their countries forward, to improve health, education, human rights, and the political and economic systems. They’d like to see their country progress to be more self sufficient. (Plus development organizations often pay more than government, though much less than the UN, and people feel they can actually make a difference at an NGO, rather than what they can accomplish working in government). Foreigners working on the ground, the ones I hang out with at least, want the same thing, to work towards the vision.
People who work with development programs don’t see growth and branding and marketing as a means to grow a business and make shareholders happy. They see them as a means to an end. That end is the vision, the larger goal. A lot of times they feel more accountable towards communities and the countries they live in than towards you and your donors over there in the head office, or in Europe or North America or wherever, regardless of who those donors are.
When the head office sends out congratulatory emails for huge grants raised and no emails for huge numbers of lives improved via small grants, it seems like all the head office cares about is money. When you focus only on the cash, we see you as trying to grow the organization for the sake of growth. It starts to sound like you view people on the ground as your personal employees, working for you to raise money for your own glory, instead of us all working together to implement programs to achieve the vision we signed on to when we started working here.
When you talk about needing to raise our profile, bring in more donors, do advocacy, and get more money, remember that we are doing that for a reason: to improve more lives. More often than not, unless you are speaking at a big event to lots of staff to motivate them, you forget that last bit of the phrase. You lose sight of the larger goal. And people roll their eyes at your empty words. The vision seems like an afterthought and that bugs us.
We are not naive. We know that we need money to run our programs. We probably understand that even better than you because we are the ones suffering budget cuts and skimping by to stay within overhead rates and trying to explain those cuts to communities and local partners. But here’s the thing: the point is to raise money to do programs that will help to achieve the vision, NOT to do programs so that you can promote them in order to raise money. You twist it around backwards sometimes.
And that rubs us the wrong way. Most of us really do believe in that vision shit.
More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates Series:
Lesson 1: Watch your language
Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?
Lesson 4: People are not props
Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?
Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout
*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings (often with the helpful prodding of my assistant Al Cohol). In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year since 1995. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.