We need to talk. The responsibilities of managers of non-profits have changed drastically. In earlier generations, the typical non-profit manager was judged by and guided in daily decisions by the kindness of his or her heart. Today, that is still a baseline requirement. However, in addition, the non-profit manager must be able to comply with laws, maintain fundamental accountability for all resources entrusted to the agency, and recognize that non-profits are part of the engine of social order. The non-profit leader needs to be equipped and skilled to manage staff, reduce costs, manage their human resources, increase production, lead in times of financial crisis, and be very effective in fundraising and public education efforts.
Consider the demands of laws, rules and regulations. As a faith-based non-profit, the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries (DRMM) is sometimes criticized for accepting government funds under the mistaken belief that we must be compromising our faith to get government dollars. People miss the concept that — like it or not — whether you run a religious organization, social service or community organization, or a foundation, government plays a role in your funding and operations. Whether you take government money or not, they are still in your business if for no other reason than that the government gives your donors tax breaks when they donate to you as a tax deductible organization. Whether bound by the rules that govern non-profit organizations or simply because the donor trusts the non-profit to provide quality services to the public, the non-profit should always excel in obeying rules and regulations and meeting the highest standards of the industry. It’s an ethical obligation.
The non-profit world is now operating in times of a very stressed economy. Not only are they providers of services needed by increasing numbers of people, but they also employ people who perhaps would not have otherwise considered non-profit work. It once surprised people to see a smart, young professional leading a non-profit. The perception was, “That’s the kind of work you do when you are ready to give something back, during your retirement years.” That thinking guaranteed a non-profit organization the benefit of skilled leadership at a lower cost, because the salary paid to the seasoned manager was supplemented by the manager’s Social Security and other retirement income.
There is always a need for seasoned managers who want to give back, support and surround the paid non-profit manager as a mentor, Board member, participant in a strategic planning effort, or to help bring resources to the non-profit. At the same time, we should not be troubled to see younger professionals leading the non-profits.
The question is not whether to hire a non-profit manager who believes in the cause as opposed to hiring a good manager. It is whether the non-profit management candidate really loves and believes in the cause and brings the needed skills and knowledge to what they do. With fewer resources and more competition for those resources, the highly qualified manager who can manage under stress and in complex situations, who is experienced in sound management practices, and who can master taxation and accountability rules, is in higher demand than ever before. We need managers who have a business mind and a servant heart.
The best reward of leading a non-profit is the experience of giving back, improving the organization you love, believing in your cause, and being able and willing to acquire and increase the knowledge needed to do the work. The very best is to welcome the competition and possess a strong desire to match and model the skill levels used in the for-profit world. When we gain that mind-set, we poise the non-profit community to give its very best services to clients without fear of tomorrow.