Leaders, bureaucrats and non-profit struggles

In the past few weeks, two leaders I respect have left their position in a non-profit for the private sector. Both left for much better salaries than the one you can get in a small advocacy organization, as it is to be expected. In both cases, however, even if money played a part in the decision to switch careers, it was far from being the center of the story.

No one starts working for a non-profit, advocating for kids, helping shelter the homeless, offering support to the ill or advocating for the rights of others with the idea of making a lot of money. We all know that the job itself is part of the reward. In fact, most of us in the non-profit sector are doing this pretty much because we can not help ourselves to do otherwise. We care about something, or someone, or some cause, and we just have to do it because that is what we believe in.

As a result, we often are called to lead. Families need services, injustice has to be addressed, legislation needs to be fought, and someone has to bring people together to do it raising money, bringing people together and raising the voices of others to bring change. Doing this is not easy, and requires multiple, often contradictory talents. We are asked to be charmers, organizers, fighters, protesters, defenders and guides, all at the same time. We are engaged in uphill battles against seemingly impossible odds, trying to convince others that we can solve this. We are looking for friends for our cause everywhere, while we search for anyone that will give us even a small grant to keep the lights on one more month. We have to mobilize disparate organizations, struggle to build consensus, and motivate them. We struggle to make broken, fragmented systems work with some semblance of coordination against a backdrop of diminishing resources and growing need.

And we have to do all of this by sheer force of will. Leading.

We do it and we succeed, sometimes. We do it because we care and we love our jobs, and because we think it is important. Someone has to do it, and it just happens to be us. We take on a problem, we call dozens of people, we cajole, charm and motivate our way towards a solution, and sometimes we can claim a victory, big or small. We lead. We try to build a coalition, alliance, task force, collaborative, working group or some other contraption, and we keep it together until it works, it fails, or we can no longer carry the burden.

What often happens, however, is that our leaders can not carry that burden. We burn them out. They fight, struggle, strive and charm, and more often than not, we put so much crap on them that we set them up to fail. We build our strategies based on the capacity of a few stubborn, talented and capable individuals to push for change, and we eternally postpone creating ways to support our leaders or to be viable after they are done. We focus on the mission, we focus on leadership, but we often forget to build institutions that can make help sustain our work.

Bureaucracy is akin to a curse word in non-profits. It is something that we rail against, in fact; we spend a good deal of our time try to fix broken ones. We are proud of being small and nimble; no red tape, all action. We don’t like bureaucracy.

Truth is, we should take bureaucracy seriously — in fact, we should try to build one on our own. Bureaucracies are, in many ways, the institutional expression of a task. They are permanent organizations build to deliver a good, a service or perform a task in a predictable, consistent way. Bureaucracies work better with good leaders, but a good bureaucracy can operate without one. In fact, they are designed to rely on procedure, technical expertise and professional staff, not on receiving orders. A good bureaucracy will pick up the day to day operations of an organization and do it well, enabling its leaders not to waste their time in technical work. It might be a dumb machine, but it frees time for what it is important.

The thing is, even if we are doing something we truly love and care about, leadership is not enough. Non-profits are more often than not operated on a shoe-string budget; our focus is to get things done, without paying too much attention to the tools we use. As a result, we often rely on a small staff, a few overworked leaders that need to take a ton of decisions and spend untold amounts of time keeping their organizations afloat, and vast constellations of equally beleaguered non-profits struggling to sustain some semblance of collective effort. We fill our tiny organizations with people that have job descriptions longer than a federal grant, and then we wonder why they burn out. It is our own damn fault, because we never spent enough time building the institutional backups, the bureaucracies that will let them do their jobs well.

It is time to rethink how set up our work. It is time for funders to realize that overhead is not waste, paperwork and money not going to fulfill our mission, but actually the foundations of our work. It is time for non-profits to stop promising that we can do things for a fraction of a cost without killing ourselves. It is time to think in terms of what we need to be able to do our job, not on how low our bid has to be to get us funded.

Above all, it is time to stop fooling ourselves that we can write grants, cozy up to donors, run an organization, chair a coalition, research issues, build programs and not lose our minds in the process. We can do it, for a while. Once we are out, however, all those things we were sorta keeping together by being in all places at once, keeping everything in our head and pushing everyone forward will fall apart, as we did not build the procedures, technical expertise and professional staff necessary to sustain our efforts.

Leadership is important, certainly, but leadership alone is not enough. We need to strive to build organizations that thrive and deliver results both when we are there and after we left. We need to think about how we create structures, institutions that do not need us to be there in order to continue delivering the change we seek.

This means being explicit in listing what is routine, and what needs to be routine, and building our organizations around a professional, stable core, not insane workload and some goodwill. This might require some tough conversations with funders, and some soul searching about economies of scale, duplication and mergers. It will definitely require getting over the notion that we are the one vital tool to get the job done. We might be now, but it should not be this way.

Building institutions, hiring bureaucrats and creating procedures might sound boring and sorta pointless, specially when there is so much out there that needs to be fixed. It might be boring, but unless we build better tools, we won’t make much of a difference. It is time.