From time to time, my phone rings. A nonprofit staff or board member begins to talk.
“We’re in a unique situation,” this person says.
Silently, I roll my eyes.
Or maybe, “We have a unique problem.”
Actually, you don’t.
Apologies for the snark. During these conversations, I do my best to listen deeply, respond respectfully, and seek out the nuances of their circumstances. I ask a lot of questions. In some cases, people just want to vent—and I encourage that.
Regardless, these discussions tend to wind up in a predictable place: “Many, many other groups are facing the same challenges you’ve just described,” I say.
Most people find this comforting.
Over the past 25 years, I’ve worked with thousands of nonprofits in 47 U.S. states and across Canada. Nearly all the problems they experience fall into one or more of these categories:
Let’s acknowledge that within and among these challenges, you can find an infinite number of variations and permutations. In that sense, yes: each organization can define its circumstances as unique.
However, let’s also acknowledge that nearly every nonprofit is navigating similar currents and trying to avoid the same whirlpools, rapids, and backwaters. Given this reality, comparable tools and techniques can be useful with a variety of groups.
Earlier this year, I facilitated a fundraising workshop in a distant state. At the start of the session, one participant raised his hand and said,
“You need to understand our circumstances. This community is unique. We have a small population, lots of nonprofits, and we’re competing for the same donors. We have many seasonal residents—when they’re here, there are so many fundraising events that the weekends are packed.”
In his own way, he was expressing skepticism: Whatever you teach us may not be relevant, because our situation is uniquely difficult. He was unaware—until I gently responded—that he had just defined at least a dozen communities where I had previously trained and supported local nonprofits.
Here’s another version of the same behavior. A board member of a conservation land trust pushed me for examples of success from “exact peer” organizations: same budget size, staffing pattern, number of land protection projects, etc.
His unspoken idea: the experience of larger or smaller organizations—we’re talking about organizations within the land trust network, not to mention arts groups, universities, animal shelters, domestic violence prevention groups, religious congregations, etc.—would be somehow irrelevant.
The obsession with uniqueness masks a troubling train of thought. When followed to its logical conclusion, it sounds something like this: Because we’re different, the rules don’t apply to us.
If you face challenges, it’s helpful to know how others have addressed similar problems.
If you’re considering opportunities to grow your organization, it’s useful to learn about how other groups have responded in similar situations.
Put your ego aside. Whatever you’re up against, somebody—somewhere—has been there before you. What can you learn from their experience?
Author: Andy Robinson