30 March 2011

Some of my best friends in the nonprofit sector are consultants.

Perhaps it comes as a surprise to this blog's readers that I have any friends at all(1), let alone friends in the nonprofit sector. But I do. I even have heroes.

When I think of the people I like, admire, and trust the most in the sector these days, I realize that many of them are no longer on the payroll as employees of nonprofit organizations. They're still around, doing excellent work for nonprofits, but they're consultants and contractors. Instead of bosses, they have clients.

What does this mean? One interpretation is that market forces have made it more efficient for nonprofits to hire consultants.(2) However, if we apply Ockham's razor, we know that the most simple and probable explanation lies in how nonprofits are managed.

Consider the following scenarios:
  • You are a really brilliant fundraiser. Like all the best people in your field, you're a prodigy at marketing, communications, event management, data mining, and all-around creativity. Is it any wonder that such a smart person might want to move on periodically to new challenges, even with the best fundraising job at the best nonprofit organization in the world? However, you do not have the ideal job; you are working with a board and an executive director that squelch your best ideas. Wouldn't it be better to be a fundraising consultant, and be able to pick and choose projects, without having to make an all-or-nothing professional commitment to one organization?
  • You are stellar technology professional who would like nothing better than to be the CTO of a medium-sized nonprofit, where you would have responsibility for systems administration, database development, and online services. No nonprofit will hire you, partly because the management teams of these organizations don't want to create any more staff positions with benefits, and partly because they don't see information and communication technology as part of their core mission. They'd rather outsource these services, even though this means more downtime and less continuity. If you really want to work with nonprofits, wouldn't it be better to develop a client base in the sector than to take a full-time job working for a business whose mission means nothing to you?

  • You have lots of experience, plus an M.B.A. in nonprofit management and a Ph.D. in organizational behavior. An established nonprofit hires you with great fanfare to be its director of human resources and organizational development, because, as they say, they are looking for a "change agent" that will help transform their most valuable asset, the staff, into a team with high morale and unsurpassed effectiveness. Two years pass, and aside from shuffling the usual HR paperwork and holding one training in which you explain Myers-Briggs personality types as a way to help colleagues understand the diversity of work styles, nothing has happened. Every other initiative that you have proposed has been shot down by the combined machinations of the chief operating officer and the director of programs. All that rhetoric about change and effectiveness was just some noise made to impress funders who were reluctant to give money to an organization that seemed to be coasting on the reputation it built in the 19th century. Wouldn't it be better to set up as a consultant, so that you can quickly terminate any clients who seem inclined to use you as window dressing?

  • You are a relatively recent graduate from social work school who shows unusual promise. Your ability to advocate for your clients is remarkable, and you always meet or exceed the programmatic goals set by the senior management team of the nonprofit that employs you. However, you are troubled by the way senior management treats the social work team, and by the way that your program seems to be a focus of intra-organizational politics in a struggle that you don't even begin to understand. There's a general atmosphere of muffled hostility, with lots of secret meetings being called and decisions being made, but you only find out about them after the fact when you receive memos about unexplained changes in protocol. Wouldn't it be better to quit, and to find work on a fee-for-service basis, so that you can just concentrate on doing a superlative job as a social worker, without getting entangled in organizational upheavals that you have no power to affect?
My answer to each of these "wouldn't it be better?" questions is usually yes - that becoming a consultant can be a good, short-term, individual solution for highly competent people who would rather not live or die by the idiocy of a one badly managed nonprofit organization. But that answer is a serious indictment of the people with the power in these organizations.

Every senior manager in a nonprofit organization who has any pretensions to strategic thinking should be able to see where this is going. If all the innovative, intelligent, high-achieving staff members run shrieking in horror from full-time, long-term employment with nonprofit organizations, then life is going to become pretty damn unpleasant for those who are left behind. Eventually, the senior management will have to chose between hiring superlative free agents as contractors, or hiring nightmarishly ineffectual employees, or hiring no one at all.

Of course, it might not be the worst scenario in the world for all of the nonprofits in the sector to reorganize themselves as highly effective adhocracies, but I'm not very sanguine about this possibility. Unless it's done very carefully, nonprofit organizations that rely entirely on outsourcing all of their most crucial services are going to lose a lot of the long term strategic momentum if all of the organizational memory resides in the brains of contractors. And I'm not at all confident that such a transition would be done very carefully, or very successfully, by most of the nonprofits that attempted it.

The scenario with nightmarishly ineffectual employees seems more likely, and I'd be willing to bet that you can think of a couple of real-life examples without much effort.

However, what really frightens me is the "no one at all" scenario. I know that we're living in times when it's hard to find a job, because I hear it on the news and from nonprofit colleagues who have been laid off. At the same time, I also receive a terrifying number of telephone calls and emails from hiring managers at nonprofit organizations, and the message there is that they've advertised widely but can't find a single feasible candidate for a key position.(3) The résumés pour in, presumably sent by losers, and the jobs remain vacant for obscenely long stretches of time - until the organization has to hire contractors, or rearrange work responsibilities, or find some other way to cope with the realization that they can't attract the right kind of job-seeker.

Senior managers, I'm looking at you.

Are you going to drive every smart, competent, sane, self-respecting person out of the dysfunctional hell that you've made of your organization?

Are you going to wait until the entire nonprofit sector disbands by attrition, before you clean up your act?

If you have any trouble answering these questions, perhaps I can talk you into hiring me as a consultant. If you pay me by the hour, I'd be happy to deliver my assessment of your problem and a few explicit suggestions about what you can do.(4)

1) Considering that I am foul-tempered, judgmental, and passive-aggressive.

2) Not that I understand what this means. When I find someone in the nonprofit sector that does, I try to be nice and respectful. It's an effort, because being nice doesn't come naturally to me, but understanding finance and market forces without assistance is even more unnatural.

3) The reason that they're calling or emailing is that they want me to recommend some candidates. This puts me in a bind. Should I recommend good people for positions in abysmal organizations, in the hope that the competence of the former will help pull the latter out of the abyss, even if it destroys the former's peace of mind? Or should I recommend perfectly awful people for abysmal organizations, in the hope that they all deserve each other, and that it will more efficient to consolidate the misery and incompetence, even if that means increasing the agony for the constituencies that the organization intends to serve? I leave it as an exercise for the student to figure out the correct answer.

4) I guarantee that colorful language will be involved.


Anonymous said...

This post leaves me conflicted, Curmudgeon. You make terrific arguments for why top-notch dedicated NPO pros would become consultants -- after over a decade moving from NPO to NPO and being disappointed every time by the inertia and backbiting I'm tempted to take my expertise to the consultant marketplace -- but that is balanced by my even worse disappointment with the competence and professionalism of 9/10ths of the NPO consultants I've worked with. Your criticism of NPO management, and the likely consequenes, are spot on, except here's the other side: the way to FIX the problem is to STICK IT OUT AND BECOME SENIOR MANAGEMENT so you'll attract and retain the most skilled and dedicated staff. Duh.

Anonymous said...

PS (from 'conflicted'): I believe you are somehow reading my soul, Curmudgeon. Brilliant blog, I wish I'd found it when you started it 5 years ago.

NonprofitCurmudgeon said...

There's something to be said for working for change from within an organization, although I wouldn't recommend it to people in entry level positions, or to people employed by nonprofit organizations that are entirely overrun by @$$holes. You have to be on guard for signs that you are merely indulging in gluttony for punishment.  But if you have a really strong power base within the nonprofit, and the organization is not yet a toxic waste dump of the spirit, then perhaps you have a chance. In that case, I would probably reiterate the advice I gave in previous post:  "Actively promote the careers of colleagues who are sane, productive, smart, and considerate. It's the right thing to do in itself, but it's also self-interested. If we all do this, we could end up working in a sector where power is in the hands of good people."  Good luck!

Anonymous said...

If 9/10ths of the NPO consultants you meet are unprofessional and incompetent, then that's very bad news for the sector, but excellent news for "Conflicted." He (or she) should have no trouble establishing a flourishing consulting practice, with a competitive environment that is populated entirely by sleazebags and bumblers. He (or she) is going to look great by comparison!

Anonymous said...

Spot-on, Curmudgeonly One. I think in particular your first scenario applies a lot. Superman - come in, save the day, leave - is much more satisfying than dealing with the politics and internal drudgery.

Anonymous said...

This post is spot on why I'm leaving my NPO - I fall mostly under bullet-point #2, although elements of #1 and #3 also apply to me.

I have to say, though, that the "change from within" pathway is only as clear as the senior management will allow. If you've already been branded a "troublemaker" because you're trying to change from within, you'll never get a spot on senior management to make the changes to begin with.

There's also another question of pay - I've been paid consistently $10K under what the most cursory survey of salaries for my position say I should be making. At some point, I need to stop considering the mission and start considering my retirement.