101 Biggest Mistakes Nonprofits Make And How You Can Avoid Them

Over the past four decades, I’ve worked with hundreds of nonprofit organizations. Those organizations were diverse in every sense: geographically, type of work, people served, institutional size, and more. Yet, despite the significant differences among those organizations, they had one major thing in common: They all made mistakes of one sort or another.

As my career advanced over the many years, I noticed that nonprofits don’t just make mistakes; they tend to make the same mistakes. Despite the passage of enormous time, I still keep seeing nonprofits making the very same mistakes, over and over again. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by this phenomenon.

So, when I saw a new, bestselling book from Andrew Olsen, CFRE, I was intrigued immediately. Olsen, Partner and Senior Vice President at Newport ONE, has written 101 Biggest Mistakes Nonprofits Make And How You Can Avoid Them following a year of research involving more than 100 nonprofit organizations in North America.

Olsen does more than outline 101 common mistakes. For starters, he actually highlights 108 mistakes. However, the real value of the book comes from the straightforward tips for avoiding or overcoming those mistakes. Helping Olsen with his book’s mission are 26 additional nonprofit management, marketing, and fundraising experts.

Olsen wisely groups his list of common mistakes into the following categories:

  • Organizational Leadership and Management
  • Strategy and Planning
  • Constituent Engagement
  • Special Bonus Content

Read Olsen’s book for chuckles. Read it so you won’t feel so alone. Read it for insights. Read it for helpful tips.

Below, Olsen kindly shares with us what motivated him to write the book, three key discoveries involving what he terms the “mistake loop,” and three powerful ideas to help you break the mistake loop right now. I thank him for generously sharing his insights. I hope you’ll let Andrew and me know what you think about his book, what your “favorite” mistake is, and what thoughts you have about his guest post:

 

In a single year, I traveled to 46 states and across Canada to meet with more than 100 nonprofit organizations.

In that 12-month period, I learned so much about how nonprofit organizations work, how and where power is concentrated in organizations, what many of those nonprofits do very well – and where they are most challenged.

What emerged from this listening tour of sorts was something I never expected or imagined. I learned that nearly every one of these organizations was making one or more of the same mistakes as each of the others. What I mean by that is, if one day I was in Detroit talking with a hunger relief organization, then the next day in Toronto talking with a homeless service organization, and still the next day down in Baton Rouge talking with an animal welfare organization, the strategic and operational mistakes being made in each unique organization were eerily similar.

I found mistakes of leadership, like leaders not holding themselves or their people accountable for performance. Or, I found leaders not taking decisive action to remove toxic employees, making strategy mistakes like not investing in strategic planning, or not creating and managing to concrete development plans. And I found clear fundraising mistakes, like investing heavily in donor acquisition or social media, but not being willing to invest in major gift fundraising.

What’s more, many of the organizations had been making these same mistakes day after day, month after month, year after year. I found that there were usually three reasons for this continual mistake loop:

1.  Most often, organizations simply didn’t realize what they were doing was a mistake. It’s that whole, you don’t know what you don’t know scenario.

2.  Turnover is the next culprit. So many organizations struggle with perpetual staff turnover every 12-18 months, which saps their nonprofit of any level of institutional knowledge and memory – and results in making many of the same mistakes over and over and over again.

3.  Then there’s the last driver of continual mistakes, which is the most concerning and frustrating to me. And those are the organizations and leaders who are so deeply invested in their own “expertise” that they refuse to admit that they’re actually making mistakes, and are content to continue making them simply because their egos are so sensitive that they can’t consider a situation where they might not know best.

As I continued to process what I’d learned in these 100+ meetings, I started having conversations with other fundraisers and nonprofit leaders I trust, to get a sense for how widespread this problem really was. What I found was that many of these other leaders in our space were experiencing the very same things that I had discovered!

That’s when I decided to write 101 Biggest Mistakes Nonprofits Make and How You Can Avoid Them and, more importantly, to bring together 26 other fundraisers, nonprofit leaders, and leadership experts to contribute to this insightful resource.

The goal of this book is not to stop people from making mistakes. That’s part of being human, and part of learning. However, my hope is that we’ve created a tool that individuals and organizations can use to stop making these same mistakes that are so frequently made in our sector. We already know these mistakes are costly, and sometimes even disastrous for organizations.

So, what can you do to ensure that you and your organization are not trapped in a mistake loop?

Here are just three ways you can make certain you’re not allowing your own ego and self-worth to keep you from making meaningful change to avoid the 101 common mistakes:

1. Learn to embrace vulnerability: This is a tough one because vulnerability comes with risk. Whenever you open yourself up in authentic and honest ways, you invite response that might not be comfortable. But it is healthy. And it’s the only way to truly live a meaningful life. It’s also a critical component of developing a healthy workplace, and a healthy sense of your own successes and failures. In her book, Daring Greatly, author Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability isn’t good or bad; it’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of fear that the cost will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.”

2. Practice “Yes, And” thinking: Rather than immediately tamping down ideas from others in furtherance of your own beliefs and assumptions, practice using the phrase “Yes, And” – meaning, instead of meeting any new idea or challenging thought with “yeah, but…”, try to find something in the conversation that you like, and then add to it with some of your own thinking. The goal here is to a) become more flexible in your own thinking and perspective, and b) allow those around you to contribute in meaningful ways to the conversation.

3. Let the data decide: This is a big one. One of the most difficult habits to develop is to trust the data even when it doesn’t confirm what you previously believed about a situation. As happens more than we’d all like to admit, when information doesn’t conform to our preconceived beliefs, we tend to discount it. We also look for ways to have data support our previous beliefs, which often leads to poor decision making. Leaders who allow the data to shape their strategy rather than trying to shape the data to fit their strategy are much more likely to be successful in navigating complex and challenging situations, and in adapting to realities on the ground – whether positive or negative.

If you’re ready to breakout of the mistake loop, I invite you to download a free sample of my book, which will give you the first 10 mistakes and tips for overcoming them, by  clicking here. Or, you can buy the entire book, in paperback or Kindle format, by clicking here.

 

That’s what Andrew Olsen and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

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