True in life? Maybe. True in running a nonprofit? Nope.
Sometimes we get so used to hearing certain phrases and strings of logic that we forget to pause and ask ourselves, “Wait… Is that even true?” In fact, as my loyal readers know, I bust nonprofit industry-related myths (and specifically, those that involve visitor-serving organizations) here on KYOB and that’s what this site is all about.
I’ve had some fun in the past writing about famous movie lines that are NOT about running a nonprofit – even though folks frequently celebrate these lines (and the movies are excellent). Considering them to be fact for nonprofit organizations is dangerous. So today, let’s bust some (un)trusty English proverbs, shall we?
1) Curiosity killed the cat
“Curiosity killed the cat” warns of the dangers of “unnecessary” investigation or experimentation. But investigation and experimentation are critical for the long-term survival of visitor-serving and nonprofit organizations today – and the more uncomfortable, the better. In fact, as industry leaders, it’s our job to be curious and ask hard questions even if we don’t like the answers. It is only by embracing trends and data that organizations can survive and thrive in today’s rapidly evolving world.
2) A penny saved is a penny earned
Originally, this proverb reads, “A penny spar’d is twice got.” This may be the most poisonous of the English proverbs for nonprofits and it’s also the one that I’ve actually heard used in an important client leadership team meeting. It is dangerous because it implies that an organization “saving it’s way to prosperity” is a healthy strategy – or that it’s even possible. It’s not. This proverb is untrue for three, primary reasons: 1) Audience and donor acquisition is more accurately considered an investment than a cost (read more); 2) Costs to reacquire audiences and supporters is MUCH higher than the cost to maintain them (seven times more costly, in fact) so “saving” pennies by denying any type of engagement is a bad strategy; 3) Deferred investments always come due. In other words, inaction can be extremely expensive. When leaders tout, “a penny saved is a penny earned” as they pat their development or marketing executive on the back, it is not “a job well done.” It is “an opportunity well avoided.” And likely, it will come back to haunt your organization.
3) Good things come to those who wait
Patience may indeed be a virtue. However, the opportunity for nonprofit organizations may be to more appropriately apply it. For instance, we don’t pay attention to this virtue enough when in comes to fundraising as we create annual goals and measure success based on our fiscal year timelines. When we do try to adhere to this relatively arbitrary timeline, we risk sabotaging our ability to secure bigger donations. Essentially, though the instant gratification of today’s society may be making us perpetually impatient, we must remember that fundraising and building meaningful relationships (still) cannot often be rushed.
HOWEVER, we are too “patient” – and we are particularly pros at “waiting” – in the “sector evolution” department. Our lack of agility is to blame for the negative substitution of the historic visitor phenomenon that cultural organizations are experiencing. It’s also why we’re in such a unique and not-awesome place when it comes to engaging millennials. When it comes to keeping up with the times and industry evolution, good things don’t come to organizations who wait. Irrelevance comes to organizations who wait.
4) When in Rome, do as the Romans do
For nonprofits, to behave as other nonprofits means to be constantly struggling. It means striving for the industry average – which is often struggling for funds on the tail end of mediocre. This proverb is important to bust because “no man is an island” (i.e. no organization or nonprofit leaders is an island) is a proverb that deserves respect. Organizations certainly can and should learn from other organizations! But we need to be careful at our industry conferences because their setup often purposefully obstructs honest assessments and thus, they often unknowingly encourage failure. Organizations also risk catching a bad case of Case Study Envy wherein they think that they’ve uncovered a great idea to take back to their own organization, but they forget to think critically about the differences between the “example” organization and their own. In sum, nonprofit organizations benefit by sharing and learning and always being curious – and that includes asking questions about whether presented initiatives actually met any meaningful goals or if they just sound cool. If we only look to our own industry in order to move forward, it won’t happen.
5) Let sleeping dogs lie
Let’s first talk about the famous anecdote about the boiling frog. The idea is that if a frog is placed into boiling water, it will jump out immediately. However, if the frog is placed in colder water that slowly comes to a boil, the frog will not be able to perceive the danger and will be boiled alive. The story is used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to threats that rise gradually. In our industry, “threats” that rise gradually could be called trends – and we need to pay attention to them to survive. When organizations “let sleeping dogs lie,” they put important questions about the evolution of the industry as well as their own organizations on hold, constantly believing that everything is alright as the world turns in the other direction. The thing is, one day a cultural organization, for instance, might look around and discover that free admission isn’t the cure-all for engagement that they’d been banking upon and in fact may hurt their organization long-term, free days do not attract underserved audiences, there are key audiences that they’ve developed a reputation for NOT engaging, and social media is their most important communication channel – even more than their website. By the time these things are realized, they may have already had to lay off staff.
Let’s think twice about repeating these phrases in leadership meetings, board rooms, conferences, or while even standing in hallways connected to nonprofit organizations. They don’t belong there. Of course, not all English proverbs need “busting.” Some may need elevating. Quickly and just for fun – here are three that deserve a tip of the hat when it comes to applying to nonprofit organizations.
1) It takes two to tango
An organization needs people in order to survive and carry out its mission. (Chances are, your mission has something to do with people directly.) This is why connectivity is king. An organization can declare importance, but the market decides the relevance of the message and content. Until organizations understand this, they may have a hard time securing supporters and evangelists in today’s connected world.
2) Necessity is the mother of innovation
Nonprofits often aim to be efficient with their spending, so making smart investments is important. To that end, it may be wise for organizations to take on “smart experiments” that help organizations reach their goals. Digital engagement for digital engagement’s sake is a dumb idea and usually not the best use of funds, but organizations do this when they misunderstand and think that digital engagement is about technology more than it is about people. Let’s prioritize initiatives that mean something and that help us master industry issues that we need to resolve.
3) Actions speak louder than words
This is why data suggest that visitor-serving organizations that highlight their missions financially outperform those marketing primarily as attractions. What you say matters, but what you do and how you “show” your organization’s values matters more when it comes to garnering support and securing donations.
All of these short expressions of popular wisdom certainly have their places in life – but that doesn’t mean that they all have a place in the nonprofit board room.