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Leadership Matters in Giving December 6, 2010

Filed under: foundations,individual donors,nonprofit leadership — fundtimes @ 2:57 pm

How important is the quality of leadership when deciding on which nonprofit to donate to? This might seem like an odd question given more seemingly important attributes like mission, impact and financial management.  But would you give to an organization where the leadership acted contrary to ideals of social justice?

I’ve come in contact with a lot of nonprofit leaders over the course of my 10 years of service.  If I’m to be frank (as opposed to tamar), I would say that my impression of those leading hasn’t been that great.  I have witnessed huge contradictions in the mission of an organization and how leadership treats its staff.  I’ve seen the same inequities that an organization strives to eradicate be reflected in its very structure.  And I’ve seen nonprofit leaders so blind to their personal shortcomings, that the word oxymoron would be an oxymoron.

So what does this have to do with giving? In my opinion, plenty.  Would you willingly give money to a nonprofit who’s mission statement is to eradicate institutional racism, yet not one staff member of color is in a leadership position?  Or a nonprofit dedicated to women’s empowerment and all the board members are male?  Again, these characteristics may not seem as essential as the expense line on a 990, but they do provide a glimpse into how leadership uses public dollars to promote a value system that may in fact be contrary to its mission.

Without latching on to the extreme tactics exhibited by TSA, below are some quick tips to assess the “internal policies” of a nonprofit in order to better inform your giving:

  • Request a Site Visit. As a potential donor, you should be able to visit the organization that you plan to donate money to.  Grantmakers do it all the time…and for good reason.  This visit will allow you to see things that a glossy publication or web site may never be able to reveal.  Last year, I took a tour of the D.C. nonprofit Miriam’s Kitchen and was more than convinced that my potential dollars would be used in ways that really addressed the needs of homeless men and women.
  • Policy Matters. If your request for an anti-discrimination policy (or any other policy for that matter) is met with a blank stare, quickly put your checkbook in duplicate away.  There seems to be a train of thought (choo-choo) in the nonprofit sector that if you commit your life to doing good, then you are incapable of harming others.  If you’ve lived long enough, you already know that that’s just not the case.  If the leadership of a nonprofit is unable to provide you with a written strategy on how they address potential conflicts among staff and/or board, then that’s a pretty good indication that they are also not the best organization to address external instances of injustice.
  • Navigate the Nonprofit Grapevine. While I would never measure a nonprofit’s impact by what others say about it, there is something to be said of reputation.  If a nonprofit has a high turnover rate among staff or its executive director is likened to an overseer, then it’s worth it to investigate the social character of the organization before you donate to it.  Not sure who to ask?  Ask several of your trusted colleagues what they know about the organization.  Strike up a conversation with a stranger at your next nonprofit happy hour.  Or check out their review online at GreatNonprofits.  Hopefully, what you hear/see will help to better inform your giving in these tough…economic…times (ahem).

What do you think about the quality of nonprofit leadership in giving?  If you are a donor (or thinking about becoming one), how important is a nonprofit’s “social character” in your decision-making?

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