10 signs your npo is dying

“The 10 Signs Your Nonprofit is Dead” or “10 Signs Your Nonprofit is Dead But No One Can Tell” were the titles I really wanted to use (and that don’t deal with the “Zombie” titles I considered) but Hoots’ better judgment prevailed.

After years of working with nonprofits and helping with everything from management to fundraising to strategic planning I’m startled by how many ministries seem OK on the outside but are really seriously unhealthy on the inside. In fact, many are so unhealthy it is only a matter of time before the grim reaper calls. Maybe not this year or next or even the following year, but eventually it will be time. This news is not fun for leaders, boards or stakeholders to hear. Much like in this Monty Python clip (warning: rated PG-13 for the last one second), they protest: “Not dead yet.”

OK, maybe not dead yet, but the clock is ticking.

Consider these 10 signs that your nonprofit is dying:

1. The focus is on keeping “things going” rather than doing what is right. You know you have this problem when the discussions in meetings are focused on what works and what will protect the future of the organization rather than what is right.

2. Leadership is out of touch and not focused on the core mission. In dying organizations the leaders often become attracted to new horizons and new projects. That’s not a bad thing but frequently the distractions are not core to the organizations mission. When that happens, you better watch out that the “dead cart” isn’t on it’s way. Donors support organizations because they love and appreciate the core mission. Veer from that course at your peril–the further from the roots of organization, the more deadly the mistake.

3. Staff is driven by fear rather than desire to change the world. If you find yourself making decisions primarily to protect yourself or your department you’re in the dead zone. When fear becomes the driving force or when blame becomes more powerful than the joy of changing the world, trouble is at hand.

4. The primary focus is on not making a mistake. Similar to #3, this paralyzes even the best people. When mistakes are viewed as “doom” rather than learning experiences innovation withers. Organizations that are not innovating and experimenting are dead on their feet. Why? Because culture and technology are moving so quickly that you have to take chances and explore opportunities in order to find the big winners. You can’t guess right every time. So if you can NEVER guess wrong, then it will seem best not to guess at all. The ministry is essentially frozen in place, waiting to be pronounced dead.

5. Marketing is the only department that brings the cutting edge concepts. Do people roll their eyes when marketing (or those consultants) bring new ideas? Are all new ideas associated with fundraising? OR are new programs and new initiatives coming also from finance? And is the Executive Director casting vision and making new plans? If not, that’s a funeral march you’re hearing in the background.

6. The best and brightest either won’t accept the job offered or won’t stay very long. Are you hiring great young people and listening to them? Are they staying and contributing? Do they feel valued and appreciated or tolerated? If you aren’t getting the best hires, you are dying. And don’t buy the argument that low salaries prevent you from getting the best. That simply isn’t true. Contribution is the driving consideration for most young people, not pay.

7. Donors are out of touch with the life and focus of the organization. If you notice that most donors began giving for a program or a motivation that is no longer your main thing then trouble is ahead. If what first attracted your donors is no longer your focus, uh oh.

8. Few staff love talking to donors about the work of the organization. If no one likes talking to your donors because there isn’t much great stuff to report then maybe your NPO is on life support already. When the “big news” you’re telling everyone about is 6 months old (or heaven forbid, a year old) that isn’t a sign of health. Results that are core to the mission are signs of life…the opposite is true as well.

9. Bad behavior by leadership is excused and ignored. If leaders function without accountability for their actions, death is ahead. Executives who bully and get away with it because staff fear retribution, then death is coming. Unhealthy leaders, over time, will kill organizations.

10. If you read this list and had a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach because you’re worried it fits the NPO you serve. Trust your gut. Don’t sit back and let death overtake a good organization. Maybe it is up to you.

Instead of fearing the call to “bring out your dead” speak up. Forward this list to someone you trust in your organization. Print it out and post it on a bulletin board. Blame me for it…that happens a lot. Use this list of signs and the reactions from your staff to start a discussion. I bet you’ll be glad you did.

Also, don’t be too discouraged. Dying isn’t dead (and from my perspective, dead doesn’t mean you have to stay dead). Recognition (awareness) is the first step. Then the turnaround can begin. I’ve seen it happen first-hand. Make the start with a discussion. Who knows where it will lead?

So what do you think? Do you have any more that you’d add to the list? How have you seen NPOs that were dead ignore their reality? I’d love to know what you think.

And because it is Good Job Monday, I’m giving a shout-out to our friend and client Jennifer Harp from Shepherd’s Gate. We had the privilege of meeting with her last week while she was “workacationing” up here in Washington. It’s awesome how relationships are transformed when we move from virtual meetings to meeting in person. We brainstormed and laughed and could have kept on going except the ferries wait for no one! Jen’s humble desire to learn and to serve to her ministry is refreshing and extraordinary. She’s a blast to work with and has a true heart for the women and children of Shepherd’s Gate. So good job Jen! Shepherd’s Gate is lucky to have you. And we just love working with you!


Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

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