Business Volunteers in Nonprofits…What do The Nonprofits Say Behind Your Back

I haven’t written for a while because I’ve been on 10 planes, in 4 cities through a tornado in Atlanta, a snow storm in Indiana and returning to an ice storm in St. Louis. Plus, I’ve had a frozen shoulder and have found it difficult to type.

But enough whining. Here’s what I’ve been hearing from nonprofit leaders around the country: Many are fed up with the arrogance of the business community that they can “do it” better and are willing to come down from on high to give their more inept colleagues in this pathetic little branch of the world some real knowledge as to how to run an organization, “as a business.” Trust me, nothing makes a seasoned nonprofit leader cringe more than the insinuation that said leader is not businesslike.

This is obviously a gross generalization. Many nonprofits adore their for-profit volunteer consulting groups and individuals and treasure their thoughts, their expertise and their commitment. I get dragged into the corner of meetings by folks who are NOT in this group. Sometimes, I can barely get to the bathroom and have to bring them with me, always a challenge when the nonprofit leader is a guy.

If you are a business leader in the for-profit section and want to share your expertise, here are a few hints so that you will be effective in your work:

1. Learn about fundraising. Learn ALL about it. If you come into a nonprofit and say, “I want to help you have more money for your mission,” you will be welcome with open arms. Relate everything you do to the bottom line, which is money for mission. If you are an accountant and want to help organize processes, all you have to say is, “When you get your books in order and maintain them, you will be able to easily access information for grant applications, for major donor meetings and you will be much more effective.” 

2. Realize that corporate governance is very different from association and nonprofit governance. According to David Yermack at NYU, the ideal size of a corporate board is 9, BoardSource is still studying board size in the nonprofit world, however, the current assumption is that about 17 give or take a few works well. Association boards again, are quite different and tend to be more like nonprofit boards in size.

3. The laws and rules are different. You file different tax forms. The fundraising rules and ethics are different. For instance, while many for-profit businesses, people will work on a commission only basis, this is considered unethical by the Association for Fundraising Professionals, although not illegal. Also Sarbanes-Oxley has implications for the nonprofit sector, but does not currently have legislative mandates.

4. Don’t assume there is staff when you make suggestions. When you say, why don’t you take a poll, the better way to put it would be, “Do you have the staff or volunteers to take a poll, and would it justify the time?” No one works closer to the bone than a nonprofit!

5. Be open to learning. Share frequently what you will be taking back to your job. A marvelous for-profit business leader who was much loved said, “I have learned so much from you on how to focus on the mission and reward outstanding behavior that I have made significant change in my company and it has already made a big difference in productivity and employee retention.

With so much to learn from one another, don’t be the person or organization that the nonprofit leader you are helping says, “I just don’t know that this interference is worth the paltry sum we are getting!”

Carol Weisman, MSW, CSP off to Norfolk, VA

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