Question to nonprofits: Who do you think you are?

Board of ContributorsJune 30, 2014 

Eating a bratwurst at Boston Harbor last Friday I was greeted warmly by the marina manager. It was my first visit this year to the marina’s weekly summer “beer-b-ques” – gatherings on the dock where folks eat well, taste local brews and socialize. Families with kids and dogs mix with both old timers and young people working at their summer jobs on the water.

I spent many Friday nights there last summer eating grilled salmon, watching the sunset and chatting. It’s a place that does what it does really well. A Boston Harbor family purchased the marina this winter with the intent to preserve this well-known treasure of the neighborhood.

The family clearly understands the marina’s role as a community center.

It’s important to know who you are. In business, a clear plan is crucial. You don’t succeed if you don’t know who you are and how to communicate that to your customers.

In the nonprofit world, this is not always the case. Nonprofits often exist long past the point of losing sight of their original purpose.

This is why I was taken aback a few weeks ago when I read an email from Bread & Roses that said they were closing for the month of August to reconsider their mission and purpose and to think strategically about their role in the community. (SideWalk volunteers work with the women who live at Bread & Roses to help them find more permanent housing.)

This soul-searching may happen elsewherein the non-profit world, but I’ve never seen it before. For the most part, nonprofits insist upon their relevance rather than consider it.

For Bread & Roses, the women who’ve been their guests are being housed so quickly with rapid rehousing that it leaves the Bread and Roses shelter without a clear direction. Their mission is to “lovingly serve the poor” so they have a lot of room to decide to go one-way or another while keeping their mission intact.

Bread & Roses could emerge from their month-long discussion with a new-found dedication to something other than homelessness, which very well might throw the community for a loop.

The nonprofits’ decision to close for a month is amazing and I look forward to seeing what they decide. It’s also bold – most nonprofits are not strong enough to shift and strategize in this way.

This is a struggle that can be found across the nonprofit sector. Foster children are not taught to think about and understand who they are, so they frequently gravitate towards street families and drug/street identities because those are inclusive worlds that some kids can fit into with ease.

Recently, a child I was representing had been repeatedly told he needed to “step up and be a young man,” but no one was teaching him what, if anything, that meant. It’s not surprising the boy chose to become a thug. It’s what he knew how to do.

In nonprofit life, you can see this same principle at work in the organizations that have carved out strong niches for themselves and where the impact they make on the community is unclear. If your nonprofit organization’s outcomes have no clear measurements, then you can only ambiguously say that you are good people doing hard work.

And it’s at that moment that you might realize your organization needs to set aside a month or a week or a year to ask yourselves, and the community: Who do we think we are?

Unfortunately, that’s not common. Instead, nonprofit leaders are more likely to dig in their heels and insist they are crucial, important and key – and people believe them for a long, long time. Then everyone seems surprised when the organization disappears, having imploded for a lack of relevance.

Even worse, sometimes employees quit in embezzlement scandals or amid ethically questionable human resources practices. It’s sad but true that the road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions.

Nonprofits operate on a community’s financial generosity to protect and support the most vulnerable of our neighbors. That community should consider thoughtfully the kind of organizations and services it wants to support.

As I finished my bratwurst at sunset at Boston Harbor last week, I watched the marina manager hug, joke around, and practice dance moves with folks on the dock. She looked at each person and made them feel welcome in beautiful space with good food and company. The rest of the staff did the same. It’s who they are.

Emma Margraf is a member of the board of contributors of The Olympian, and can be reached at margrafemma@gmail.com

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