Use the Right Tool for the Job

If my father were still alive, he would have celebrated his 89th birthday this week. Though he passed 15 years ago, I still miss him. And, I still remember the many lessons he taught me.

My dad was good with his hands. He had a well-equipped workshop where he built all sorts of things. One of the many lessons he shared with me is:

Always use the right tool for the job.”

In other words, if you need to pound a nail into a board, don’t use the handle of a screw-driver; use a hammer.

You get the idea.

It’s a simple concept. It’s really just common sense. Sadly, however, I speak with many nonprofit professionals who haven’t embraced this concept.

For example, I recently spoke with the head of a nonprofit organization who had received a rather large donation for a special project. To implement the project, the organization was required to raise additional support. Unfortunately, the organization was unable to raise the needed funds and, therefore, it could not move forward with the project. The organization faced the prospect of having to return the gift to the donor.

When I discussed the options with the head of the organization, he told me that the group’s lawyer had provided advice. From what was shared with me, it was pretty clear that the attorney was not a nonprofit law specialist. I could see that his initial advice suffered from his lack of expertise. While the lawyer may be a perfectly fine corporate or real estate attorney, he did not have the experience to deal with the complex issues at hand, both legal and ethical.

I’ve seen this time after time. Nonprofit managers assume that any lawyer can competently answer any legal question. But, if you had a sore throat, you would not go to a cardiologist. Instead, you’d go to your family doctor or an ear, nose, and throat specialist. So, why wouldn’t you go to the appropriate legal specialist to answer your questions?

By the way, I’m not suggesting that lawyers are “tools.” 🙂 But, they are an important resource. Organizations just need to select the right one for the job at hand.

The same is true in other facets of nonprofit work. If an organization needs a top-notch grantwriter, it should not hire someone with only direct mail copy writing experience. If an organization needs to coordinate the transfer of a real estate gift, it should probably consult a real estate attorney rather than a human resources lawyer. If a nonprofit wants to outsource its annual fund calling program, it should find an expert service provider with oodles of annual fund experience rather than contracting with a firm that sells long-distance telecom or cable television services. If an organization is looking for someone to manage a special event, it should find a special events expert rather than relying solely on an administrative assistant.

Not only should nonprofits work with the right people for the job at hand, they should also use the correct tactics. For example, generally speaking, do not include your major donor prospects in your annual fund calling program. Instead, plan on a personal visit. Use the right tactic for the job.

You may think that this post is way too obvious. If so, good for you if you always use the right tool for the job. If that’s the case, however, I guarantee you that you know someone who has not embraced the axiom. So, I invite you to help spread the word.

Toward that end, please share any funny or horrifying stories you have experienced or witnessed that illustrate what can happen if you do not use the right “tool.”

In case you’re wondering, the outcome to the lawyer story I mentioned above is satisfactory. Initially, the lawyer had suggested that the organization could not legally return the gift to the donor despite the fact that the organization could not honor the donor’s intent. This was bad advice that flew in the face of the jury ruling in the Garth Brooks case. (The right legal specialist would have been aware of the ruling and its implications.) Fortunately, the organization found a solution that the donor supports. The donor’s cash gift had had been used to appropriately acquire real estate. That real estate will be transferred to a new 501(c)3 being created by the donor who will work to advance the project independently.

At my suggestion, the plan for handling the gift will be put in writing to avoid any misunderstandings and to ensure that all parties are and remain on the same page.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

8 Comments to “Use the Right Tool for the Job”

  1. Michael,

    Enjoyed your newest installment. This advice can rightfully be related to recruiting Board members. The second Board I joined,(although the first I was actually made a voting member) recruited me because of my background in Early Childhood and Elementary Education. It was a social service agency that had two children’s programs, and when it came to evaluating the programs, I was the best person on the Board to do so.

    That Board was heavy with lawyers(20% of the Board), and they had a way of making things a lot harder than they needed to be. They were good to have around for certain issues, but for others they were not so helpful. I can say they were good at bringing in their friends (other lawyers) as donors, which is a good thing, especially for a capital campaign.

    Love that you brought up the Garth Brooks/Integris issue. That was the first interaction we had and the beginning of our friendship. Ah, the memories.

  2. Adult beverage??? A spot on post Michael – good job. The “right” lawyer is critical in estate planning. An estate planning attorney that I often refer clients to has told me that 60% of his business involves “cleaning up” wills, trusts, etc prepared by other attorneys. The real pros can do amazing things in the area of wealth preservation and philanthropy. Use the right tool is great advice!

  3. Michael, I enjoyed your post. I believe this can also carry into how we equip ourselves with tools to do our work as development professionals. We must be willing to continue to grow in knowledge through professional development, reading, and other resources. I was recently impressed by a fellow Planned Giving Director who vows to read one planned giving article each day in order to stay current and expose himself to other planned gift solutions. On the contrast, I also know of others who feel they are experts, and there is nothing left to learn; that is absurd. There is always more to learn, and new ways to solve old challenges. Best Wishes,

    • Rob, thank you for commenting. Your description of the different planned giving practitioners, and your emphasis on the need for professionals to always strive to learn more reminds me of an anecdote involving Louis Armstrong, the legendary jazz trumpeter. An interviewer was speaking with Armstrong who mentioned that, now late in his career, he still practiced on the horn several hours a day. The interviewer was shocked that this jazz master still felt the need to practice, and he expressed his surprise to Armstrong. Satchmo responded that he always had something new to learn, something else to perfect, something creative to explore. And, he said something like, “The day I think I know everything and stop practicing is the day I go from being a musician to just another guy who blows the horn.” If a jazz master like Armstrong could continually work on improving his performance, I think we can and should, too.

  4. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. The obvious “right” tool or choice is hidden with trying to get something done cheaply or more easily.

    • Lorri, thanks for the comment. You’re absolutely correct. We all want to get things done cheaply and easily. Unfortunately, following that path sometimes means more expense and difficulty in the long run. Recently, I saw the will of a multi-millionaire with a wife and children. He went the cheap and easy route which produced a one-page will! Needless to say, the will was entirely inadequate. Fortunately, there was still enough time for this guy to realize the problem. He’s now investing in having a proper estate plan put together though he’s still cranking about the expense. Sadly, for many folks, time runs out before the mistakes of the past can be corrected.

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