Five-minute general counsel: what nonprofits want

Nancy Lublin’s column in Fast Company is always interesting, even moreso when I disagree with her.

A column from February, “We Really Need to Talk,” (oddly renamed on the web as “Foundations’ Four Biggest Faux Pas”) is a little list of four points she’d make to foundations. To me, they boil down to versions of “we know what’s best and so just give us money to do what we want.” That sounds like I’m being critical, and I am for those nonprofits for whom the first part of that statement isn’t true: sometimes, perhaps far too often, nonprofits don’t really know whether they know what’s best. There’s no question that millions of Americans are wholly dedicated to numerous worthy causes and contribute every day with hard work, honest emotions, and hope, only to contribute further every payday with a smaller paycheck. Our country would be less friendly, more hostile, and less vibrant without their good hearts.

The question is whether organizations have established their own metrics to determine efficacy and efficiency. I’ve written before about choosing strategies and selecting performance metrics as well as admirable models worthy of emulation. Today, though, the message is simply this: you have to have some plan for figuring out how well you’re doing your job.

And yes, if you’ve been paying attention, you realize that this post isn’t really about nonprofits: it’s about performance management. Only when you have some system in place, however imperfect, can you improve it. Even public companies with constant feedback on performance and no excuse for not having near real-time operating data, often lack any considered metrics that feed into strategic decisions in scenario plans or tactical decisions on a short fuse basis.