If there’s one thing the nonprofit world has in spades, it’s conventional wisdom. (The nonprofit has a few other things in spades, as well, like passion, commitment, and creativity, but those are topics for another day). Some of this conventional wisdom is actually quite useful. Wisdom really does accumulate over time in a community.
But conventional wisdom has some real limits, as well. For one thing, the conventional wisdom about nonprofits is, well, big. There’s a lot of it. Amazon shows close to 8,000 book titles on nonprofits, for instance. Just about any university that offers business degrees now offers nonprofit management certificates or degrees, as well. And don’t bother trying to count the number of people who make a living as nonprofit consultants (which sometimes includes us). Trying to find the really critical information amidst all that noise can be incredibly difficult, so even where the conventional wisdom includes real wisdom it can be tough to ferret out.
Another limitation: conventional wisdom tends to change much more slowly than the world around it. Moore’s Law – the remarkably accurate prediction that computer chips would double in power every eighteen months – apparently applies not only to computer processing power but also more figuratively to the rate of change in the ways people create and consume content, interact, and build communities. The conventional wisdom just can’t keep up.
Finally, the conventional wisdom about nonprofits frequently falls prey to habit and inertia. Nonprofits often end up doing things this way because it’s just how we do them. This problem isn’t unique to nonprofits, of course. Any organization or community that is around long enough develops calcified ways of doing things, and nonprofits are no exception. With roots that trace to community-focused organizations across hundreds of years, a history of formal I.R.S. recognition spanning nearly sixty years, and a dramatic growth in the professionalization and size of the nonprofit sector over the past thirty years or so (nonprofits now make up 10% of the jobs in the U.S. and 5.4% of the GDP), inertia has had ample opportunity to settle in.
We wrote The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofitbecause we believe that nonprofits do vital work in our communities. But despite the passion, commitment, creativity, and skill that nonprofit amateurs and professionals alike bring to their work, few nonprofit organizations perform to their potential. We wrote The Nimble Nonprofit as an antidote to the limitations of the conventional wisdom about nonprofits.
Over the next ten weeks, we’ll post a series of excerpts from The Nimble Nonprofit. You may not agree with everything we say (we’re pretty sure you won’t, in fact), but we didn’t set out to offer the final word on improving the performance of nonprofit organizations. Rather, we share our observations about the skills and strategies used by the most successful nonprofit leaders in the hopes of contributing to the critical, vibrant conversations about how we can all do a better job in our work.
We are huge fans of Maddie’s work and her SocialFish blog, so the opportunity to publish a series of blog posts here is a real treat. We welcome your critiques and comments, and we look forward to the conversations.
Jacob Smith and Trey Beck