Non-profits pop up like ferns in a crowded forest here in Seattle. Well intentioned people see a need, decide that whatever’s already out there isn’t doing a good job or the right job, and start their own thing. Once underway, a lot of non-profits limp along for years, relying on faithful, committed volunteers and a few repeat bigger donors and doing some good for some clients some of the time. Living on a shoestring becomes a way of life. No one wants to give up, even when it might be better for a lot of struggling entities to throw in their lot together and focus on one big thing.
Looked at in the hard, cold light of day, a non-profit needs to attract some stable, renewable funding source in order to be a longer term player. Raising new money from private donations in little bits year in and year out is really hard.
I brought that piece of wisdom when I was a paid consultant — often not well received by people who were convinced of the goodness of their cause and the right of their initiative to exist — and I bring it now in my pro bono work.
We all have different gifts. Mine is to be practical more than aspirational, strategic more than impassioned, and ruthlessly honest. Sometimes aspirational and impassioned wins despite all the odds, but not often enough.
I’m doing pro bono work right now, at varying levels of intensity, with three Seattle non-profits for whom my approach seems to work. A fourth and I parted company almost before we’d begun. They needed someone to support hope beyond all reason, and that simply wasn’t me.