Tag Archives: efficiency

A grassroots group or nonprofit org = disorganization?

logoThree comments I received or read in the last few weeks via email or social media:

As a nonprofit, we can’t always make updates and changes to our web site quickly…

As an all-volunteer organization, we won’t be able to do much marketing for this event…

We haven’t replied to people that have posted on Facebook saying that they want to volunteer because we’re an all-volunteer movement and we’re progressing methodically…

Being a nonprofit, or being an all-volunteer organization, or being a grassroots group organizing a march, has nothing to do with a group or organization’s ability to:

  • make simple changes to its web site
  • market an event
  • provide quality customer service
  • have an up-to-date list of the board of directors or senior staff on the web site
  • say on the web site what volunteers do at the organization and how to express interest in volunteering
  • say on the web site what the organization needs in terms of volunteer support
  • respond to emails in a timely manner
  • refer all phone calls and emails to the appropriate person immediately
  • quickly reply to every person who wants to volunteer, even with a simple message that says “you will hear from us in the next two weeks with next steps”

Legitimate reasons for not doing those things is because the organization or group:

  • is suddenly and severely understaffed (mass staff walk out, mass layoffs…)
  • has other immediate, urgent priorities in that specific moment (building burning down, death of a client, etc.)
  • is inefficient
  • is disorganized

If you have ever wondered why so many people from the for-profit sector think nonprofits are incompetent, that people that work at nonprofits aren’t experts, this is why: because we use our nonprofit status, or our volunteer staffing, as an excuse for not being able to do the basics of customer service, management and marketing.

My reaction to someone who says As a nonprofit, we can’t always make updates and changes to our web site quickly… or As an all-volunteer organization, we won’t be able to do much marketing for this event… is this: maybe you should dissolve your organization, or seek new leadership for your organization and its programs. And my reaction to anyone that says their group doesn’t have time to respond quickly to every person that expresses interest in volunteering is this: in fact, you don’t have to involve volunteers at all, and you should say so.

Yes, I’m talking to all you folks organizing marches as well.

When you get an email from someone asking why certain information isn’t on your web site, or why you aren’t updating your Facebook page, or why your nonprofit wasn’t represented at some event, here’s an idea: apologize to the person for not having the information or activity that you should have had, tell that person you are currently understaffed, and ask if he or she would be interested in volunteering with the organization to help you correct this. For instance:

Thanks so much for the email noting that we haven’t updated our Facebook page for four months, and haven’t posted any information about our upcoming event. Our marketing manager is currently on maternity leave, and we are looking for a volunteer to help us with social media management for the next four months. Would you be interested in helping us? 


Thank you for writing about your frustration about trying to volunteer with your organization. People that want to volunteer with us deserve a quick response to their expressions of interest. Would you like to help us do that? Would you be interested in volunteering to help us quickly respond to people that want to volunteer?

Yes, I know, I wrote a similar blog back in 2012.

Also see:

Excuses, excuses

Here’s a conversation I had this week as a member of a certain city’s citizen’s committee regarding bicyclists and pedestrians:

Me: “I’d like for this link to the state agency name redacted web site to added to this web page on the city’s site. I’ve sent two emails requesting it, but no one has responded.”

City representative: “We don’t have money in the budget to do that.”

Me: “You don’t have the money to add a link to a web page?!?”

City Rep: “Actually, it’s because the decision makers need to review that change first.”

Me: “Okay, who are the ‘decision makers’?”

City Rep: “Oh, we don’t have a policy yet on how those decisions will be made.”


This is also a perfect illustration of the change of mentality that’s needed for effective online communications. Using web pages and social media has nothing to do with budgets or policies – it has to do with mindsets.

Fear-based management – it’s a customer service KILLER.

Beware those charity rating sites

Very few nonprofits hand out cash to people. Instead, they provide services. Those services could be just about anything: nutritious food for people who can’t afford to feed themselves, live theater, counseling for people who have been victims of domestic violence, shelter for unwanted animals, job training for people desperate to enter or re-enter the workforce, day care activities for people with severe disabilities, and on and on and on.

Many of these services are designed, overseen or provided by professionals — people who have the training and experience to provide specialized services. These nonprofit professionals are just like those in any for-profit profession: they have spent a lot of money on their education and training, they have bills to pay, they have health care costs, they want to be able to buy homes and put their kids through school, they need a retirement plan, etc. And to keep the best people, nonprofits have to pay competitive salaries (and their competition isn’t just nonprofits — its businesses as well).

All of these organizations have rent to pay, equipment and supplies to buy (copy machines, computers, paper, furniture), insurance and utlities to pay for, and on and on.

What about any of these costs isn’t related to program costs? A copy machine may mean the difference between serving 1000 people as opposed to just 100. A trained social worker with a Master’s degree may mean the difference in providing a job counseling program and not providing one at all. A paid, full-time manager of volunteers may mean the difference between involving 100 volunteers and just a dozen or less.

With all that in mind, I have a lot of skepticism for claims that nonprofits give too much to administative costs, as well as for grading systems that are focused mostly on financial reports and not-so-much on the results of a nonprofit’s work. Some nonprofits have told me that they have been forced to hire a revolving door of short-term consultants instead of full time employees because, the way sites charity rating organizations or the way funders count administrative costs, a consultant can be counted as a program cost, but an employee, doing exactly the same work, is considered administrative.

As the Nonprofit Quarterly put it recently, “With one holiday giving article after another urging donors to do their homework on charities, it would be nice to believe that those that set themselves up to inform donors would take care not to do harm.”

Here’s some of the many criticisms of these charity rating sites:

Here’s my advice: when evaluating a charity, look for accredication by professional bodies, such as the Council of Accreditation. Look for membership in national or international networks. Look at what the organization says it does; don’t just look at activities – look at results. Look to see if they involve volunteers — not because volunteers are “free” and replace paid staff but, rather, because volunteers prove community investment in the organization. If you don’t see this documented on the organization’s web site, email the organization and ask for it.

But remember that many large donors refuse to fund administrative costs, and that means the organization may not have the funding to hire the staff that would be needed to provide the level of detail regarding its programs you and others may want — because, you know, that’s an administrative cost.