Professionalism in the nonprofit sector is a moral obligation. If our work is worth doing, it is worth doing with efficiency and accountability. I have argued over and over that there is no integrity in the nonprofit sector unless we manage our organizations as well-run machines. Waste in our sector is devastating, and all too common. Given the outsized contributions entrusted to us by American donors and the critical needs we are charged with meeting, we have an ethical responsibility to manage our organizations as efficiently and effectively as possible.
But just as great ideas have a dark side, professionalization has a dark side too. Many observers argue that the radiant spirit of volunteerism, which gave birth to our sector, has dimmed under the management of professionals. Lay leaders and volunteers engage with nonprofits in their personal time. They are in search of a qualitative experience. They are with us to help accomplish something they care about. When we harness them too firmly, they walk away and we lose the chance to direct their energies toward impact. To an extent, this holds true for staff as well. So many of our best people choose to work in nonprofits instead of earning more money elsewhere because of the “warm glow” of doing work they believe in. Holding the reigns too tightly risks undermining the motivation that brings out their best work.
I am usually suspicious when I hear cries for “keeping things loose.” It typically means someone is resisting the discomfort of hard work. The last thing the nonprofit sector needs is another excuse for complacency or mediocrity. But the nonprofit sector is unique, and uniquely impactful, because we are able to blend professionalism and experimentalism in ways that neither business nor government can. Nonprofits perform best when leaders learn to embrace both the ambiguity of creative wondering and the clarity of rigorous performance standards. The trick, as regular readers will not be surprised to hear me say, is figuring out how to integrate the two in your specific environment.
My staff frequently hears me talk about the “two-thirds to three-quarters rule.” We use a modified management by objectives system for directing work flow. Following a workplan we develop each year, granular tasks link back to specific objectives, objectives link back to broader goals and goals tie directly to big-picture organizational mission. We turn activity into results by holding each other accountable to the work plan, our ultimate benchmark for measuring success. Anytime we find this system governing too little of our time, two-thirds, we emphasize accountability. When we find ourselves becoming intolerant of any action that cannot be traced directly back to the work plan, the 75 percent mark, we encourage flexibility.
Efficiency is imperative, but impact is not achieved through efficiency alone.