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Avoid a Nonprofit 'Culture of Martyrdom' at All Costs

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Third Sector Today recently wrote an article about recruiting and retaining talent, and referenced a “Culture of Martyrdom” that is pervasive among some nonprofits. For the past week, I haven’t been able to get that martyrdom phrase out of my head. Here is the excerpt that mentions it:

What’s more, when you take into consideration many of the stereotypes surrounding a life in nonprofit, which comprise a sort of “culture of martyrdom,” it’s almost like having hit the lottery to have great talent apply in the first place!

Martyrs' SquareThis is a strong statement, since the definition of the word martyrdom is “extreme suffering; torment!”

I have been asking members of my team at Bloomerang, people I know who serve on numerous boards, and even a few industry consultants about their opinion on this topic.

Every single one agreed that the mindset of martyrdom does permeate many, if not most charities they have worked with.

Why does this need to be the case?

The question of why is this happening begs to be asked, if not discussed. Is it a tradition that needs to keep happening? Can and perhaps more strongly, should we help it go away? Have you overcome it at your nonprofit?

An issue of “overhead”

Like so many organizational changes, it is my opinion such a change will need to start at the top. Yes, that means both the CEO and the board.

This is a very difficult change to have bubble up from within the ranks. Mindsets revolving around growth, budgets, mission success and empowerment are like huge boulders in the middle of any field to be cultivated. Virtually everyone will work around them year after year rather than trying to move them or better yet eliminate them forever.

All of us in the nonprofit sector have seen or heard “we cannot spend any money to increase our capacity to serve our mission,” or worse yet, “we do not deserve…”

Thankfully, most charities do not have to play this shell game to placate charity watchdog groups or even donors. This breakthrough was first codified in “The Overhead Myth,” where the top three charity watchdog groups implore all parties to utilize other factors than “overhead” to measure performance. Therefore, this does not have to cause martyrdom any longer!

The donor perspective now needs to be considered

This final reason may be the most important because it just might be the biggest factor going forward in your organization’s fundraising efforts!

Today’s donor, yes even the direct mail donor or event attendee, is more of an investor if and when they renew.

Unlike in previous decades, where such donors were inclined to give to organizations because they were frugal nonprofits, those donors now want to make and see an impact. Nearly every single one of them realizes bigger impact can be made when the charity has the best or largest capacity and resources to achieve their stated mission. That is the very nature of the concept of your donors being investors.

The tide has turned to this mindset and in my opinion will only get stronger over the next few decades. Such mindsets are precisely why many of our methods of solicitation, and more importantly, acknowledging donations must morph into sharing mission and project achievement results, no matter what the dollar amount!

How about you? Is there a culture of martyrdom at your organization? Have you eliminated it?

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