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Monday, January 12, 2015

Five Executive Directors Went for a Walk

Posted by Armanino Nonprofit Team

At a recent retreat of the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, an apocryphal tale made the rounds and helped frame the discussion. Here’s the way Mark Rosenman, a professor emeritus at the Union Institute & University, tells the tale: 

During a break at a nonprofit leadership retreat, five executive directors went for a walk beside a small river near the conference center. Suddenly, they noticed a group of toddlers being swept downstream. As they looked on in horror, the number of babies in peril grew.

One of the EDs jumped into the river and started to grab kids, throwing them one-by-one up onto the dry riverbank to save them. A second ED also jumped in and steered some of the babies toward a section of the river that was calmer, where she began to teach them how to swim.

Then a third ED jumped in and began to organize the now-swimming toddlers to teach their non-swimming peers how to help themselves. The fourth ED turned and started to run back to the conference center, telling the others he would round up some volunteers, solicit donations of dry clothes, raise as much money as he could to support rescue efforts, and secure technical assistance with the goal of making those efforts more efficient and effective.

The last of the EDs ran off in the other direction. When her confused colleagues asked where she was going, she said she was headed upstream to see why so many babies were falling or, worse, being thrown into the river.

In his blog, Rosenman wrote, “We know that nonprofit organizations, to be successful, need to use all five of those strategies—and more—but that even the best-run charity is doomed to a Sisyphean future unless its leaders think about what’s happening upstream. It’s not enough for a nonprofit to provide services; it must always be thinking about the factors that created the problem in the first place, and what it can do to address and ameliorate the problem.”

This seems a good time for the nonprofit community—executives, donors and staff, and even recipients—to look in the mirror. The goal of being all things to all people clearly isn’t sustainable. But neither is business as usual.

In the private sector, cooperation in the form of partnerships are ‘in.’ Perhaps the same should be true among nonprofits. That way, we can rescue more babies from the river, teach them survival skills, stop the underlying cause at the source and achieve broad financial support for our efforts.

Now that’s a story with a happy ending.

Click here to read the complete post from Rosenman’s blog post “How the Charitable Sector Keeps Us All Afloat” on Philanthropy News Digest.

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