In the nearly five years that I have been a mentor with SCORE Greater Phoenix I have had the pleasure of counseling almost 170 clients who either wanted to start a nonprofit organization or who were involved with a nonprofit that they wanted to take to the next level. After spending 51 years in nonprofit management and having served on numerous volunteer boards, mentoring in the nonprofit space makes all the sense in the world for me. After all, as a SCORE volunteer, I would be the last guy you’d want to call on to help you figure out how to start up a new donut shop.
Because there are so few SCORE volunteers nationally who specialize in nonprofit organizations my client list includes mentees from 23 states and three foreign countries. It’s my sincere hope that over time SCORE will recruit additional nonprofit pros so most large chapters will have at least one local expert to call on when a client needs a nonprofit mentor.
Passion from the Heart
As different as all my clients have been in terms of their location, their background, their level of understanding of what it takes to create, maintain and sustain a nonprofit, they all have had one thing in common. I have never met a new client who, when I inquire about their mission and vision, tells me something that makes me respond by saying that’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard. Of course even if that’s how I felt I certainly wouldn’t say it quite that way. But the truth is, every client I’ve worked with has described what I would define as a meritorious idea. They tell me about a project that definitely comes from their heart and it is always intended to do good for their local community and even beyond.
But having a good idea, a good heart, a well-meaning mission and a desire to succeed in helping others is no assurance of success in anything especially in the highly competitive nonprofit sector. So after giving my new clients a chance to tell me how they want to change the world, I quickly draw upon perhaps the most important few words that have guided me throughout my career. The advice that is seared into my very being as a consultant comes from Max De Pree, the late CEO of his family-founded Fortune 500 office furniture company, Herman Miller, and a renowned author and teacher on the topic of leadership. De Pree says: The first responsibility of leadership is to define reality.
And the reality for anyone starting a new venture but especially those in the nonprofit space is to be sure to know the market, know the customer or client, know the business environment and simply know what people want and need and what motivates them. The root cause for so much failure in the nonprofit sector comes from those with great ideas who failed to test their concept to see if others would buy in. They fail when they try to project their own motivations and beliefs on others for whom those ideas may not resonate.
Recently, I began to work with a new client based in New York City. He’s a 20-something with a brilliant mind, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a concept that he believes will disrupt the philanthropic sector at the consumer level to get charities and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) the resources they need to not only survive but thrive. It sounded to me to be both fascinating and bold. I’m always intrigued by cutting edge ideas that will improve the way charities and donors relate and connect with each other for the public benefit. So I was excited to start to work with him.
He had developed a very creative and user-friendly software platform that I found appealing. I worked with him for a while and after we reached the point where he thought he was ready to launch I heard De Pree’s words echoing in my head asking if I had helped define reality for my client. So I asked how he knew that both the charitable community and the giving community would care about or consider using his platform. In short, had he enabled end users to kick the tires and test drive his program. Did he have the necessary feedback from charities and donors that would help provide the proof test that would add wind to his sails and give him reason to press on. Would charities and donors like his idea? Or would they be indifferent at best or negative at worst?
So, he developed a brief and very clever YouTube video that explained his concept and a short survey which, together, would be widely distributed throughout the nonprofit community with the hope that the feedback would help validate his assumptions. The survey is still being circulated and responded to and the results will eventually be tabulated and evaluated. At the end of this feasibility test my client should have a better idea of how his program would be accepted once it is launched.
The lesson, of course, is that no matter how laudable an idea may be it can’t and won’t succeed unless others recognize its worthiness, merit and value. As the old saying goes: If you think you’re leading a parade and you turn around and there is no one following you then you’re just out for a stroll.