An NPO Culture of Scarcity … eats fundraising for lunch

A Culture of Scarcity:

If you live in and work with, an NPO/NGO culture, you understand – in your gut – what it means to live in a Gladiator Culture; where 9 out of 10 equally qualified (but unequally prepared) foundation and agency grant apps – are rejected.  You know that knot in the pit of your stomach, when receiving a foundation or funding agency grant rejection letter. It comes with the territory, doesn’t it?

Shoveling Seaweed Against the Tide

The devastating devolution of federal, state, and local funding and budget cuts is driven by a toxic, polarized, ideological, and political environment; where the underlying motivation seems more directed at demonizing and victimizing the victims, than meeting the needs of those who are the most vulnerable and at risk. Add to that, the significant loss of principal in foundations due to dramatic losses in the market, drives both grantmaking reductions, and more rigorous evaluative and performance criteria …


In this culture, we create daily scenarios of seemingly impossible fundraising requirements, with expectations of increased tangible and measurable deliverables, in unrealistic timelines, to make-up our widening annual budget gaps – while we are compete with one another in our Gladiator Culture – in a smaller and smaller finite pool of resources. It’s no surprise then, that the average tenure of development directors … is just 18 months.

For NPO’s & NGO’s …

needs have always exceeded resources When we are client-centered, we are idealistically and compassionately drawn 24/7 into meeting the needs of those most vulnerable and at risk in our local, regional, country and global communities. As resources evaporate, we often find ourselves personally writing emotional and physical checks that our bodies and our institutions can’t cash. It really is hard to see the light at end of the tunnel … it’s either extinguished – or worse – it’s oscillating! We often feel more like fodder – than facilitators.

Changing the Paradigm

As a result, we have been inexorably drawn into accepting, participating and perpetuating a Culture of Scarcity, at so many levels in our organizations, that it’s often hard to imagine where, or how, to begin to change the paradigm … and the cycle.

The Buddhists have a name for this existential scenario – they call it Samsara – our wandering together through an endless cycle of self-inflicted, self-perpetuating, attachment to unreality, frustration, and suffering. Albert Einstein defined insanity as, “Doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results”.  That great American philosopher Yogi Berra, called it “Déjà vu all over, and over again”.  Sound familiar, it’s all the same riff isn’t it?

So, how do we break the itch scratch cycle- the pattern of Samsara, insanity, and déjà vu all over again?  Hint: The good news … it’s all learned organizational cultural behavior!

An Organizational Culture of Scarcity reflects our shared (often unarticulated) view of each other, and our stakeholders. It represents our shared, underlying institutional alignment, intentionality and our motivation – always modeled top down – it’s really contagious, and infects every internal stakeholder.

How we treat each other as stakeholders on the inside – is often an excellent predictor of how we will perceive and treat others outside the institution (i.e. clients, donors, foundations, and other orgs in the community). For example, if we have a bunker mentality – we often see a siloed departmental and institutional “Us against Them” mindset.  Consequently, collaboration, cooperation, partnerships, transparency, shared learning, and trust – are often not in the institutional spell checker.

An NPO Culture of Scarcity is a shared belief system, it is an Edifice Complex, a bulwark against the onslaught of all of the stuff we are assaulted by internally and externally.  We’re more concerned about our individual, departmental, and institutional survival – than serving our shared vision, mission, and values – through shared learning and collaborative partnerships together in the community.

 If we were a for profit corporation, we would say we were intensely product-centered – talking AT people – where marketing, social media, finance, management, development, operations and admin, are engaged in a ritualized daily battle of mortal combat, competing for internal and external resources (it’s not very safe is it?), versus, our being customer and donor centered – listening to, learning from, and engaging and talking WITH people.

Can you see how an Organizational Culture of Scarcity morphs into self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling, reactive, crisis managed, cycles; motivated by shared intentionality and self preservation behavior?

 “We met the enemy – and they is us!” Pogo (the cartoon character) said.  Not your co-workers, not the board, not management, not the volunteers, not the clients, not the foundations, not other agencies in the community, not your lapsed subscribers or donors – they’re not the enemy – we are. They are all just excuses for isolating each other and everybody we perceive as a threat. And when we do, what do we get back (fill in the blank) Yup, you got it, Samsara, Insanity, Déjà vu all over and over again.

So what do we want for outcomes –

First we have to own our own stuff – if we want to change our outcomes in here AND out there, we have to change our attitude & behavior – and,  before we do that, we have make some hard decisions together.  When we drink the Culture of Scarcity Kool-Aid, we have to own that we agree to participate in a culture that consumes people, good will, trust and social capital.
A culture of scarcity begins with a shared institutional belief that there isn’t enough emotional support, care, concern, kindness, compassion, and generosity, to go around, so we will extract it from each other.

Is that what really what we want for outcomes … for ourselves, for our board, for our volunteers, for our clients, for our community partners, for our donors? Or, do we choose to invest in a culture of generosity and gratitude – with each other – it’s contagious.

It’s not about the money.


What do you think?

Today’s guest post is brought to us by Jon Hardie, also known as @PocoJuan on Twitter.

14 Responses to “An NPO Culture of Scarcity … eats fundraising for lunch”

  1. Mary says:

    Love it, Jon!

    I especially like the product-centered vs. donor-centered thought… It’s too true!

    Thank you for a really thoughtful post – lots to ruminate on there.

    Besides, anyone who quotes Yogi Berra is ok with me!

  2. Jon Hardie says:

    Thanks Mary, Yup, when we are more concerned with pushing our stuff AT people than creating an exceptional customer experience for and with them – we send a pretty clear message to our donors, that we only care about them when they meet our needs … not theirs.

  3. laurel says:

    Love this whole article.

    This couldn’t be more timely, or resonate more deeply with me. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking through some kinks in our system and have been trying to explain this circle (although less eloquently for sure). Thank you for writing this – I will be passing it on.

  4. Pamela Grow says:

    Thanks for commenting Laurel. I hear you on the “eloquent.” Much better at saying this than I would be.

  5. Jon Hardie says:

    Thanks Laurel and Pam – you are both very gracious.

    We all seem to do a very good job of compartmentalizing our experiences: our lives are fragmented, our data is fragmented, our relationships are fragmented. So easy to get on our cognitive/ critical thinking horses and ride off in all directions – again.

    It’s important that each of us takes the time (from a less than zero time available scenario), to step back and look at our organizations – from a holistic, organic, dynamic, systems perspective. We need some mindful reflection > awareness > concentration > focus … #Insight Aha

  6. Thanks Jon and Pam for this post. It’s a powerful and important topic. I think it warrants a real discussion–perhaps a conference call to discuss some concrete and specific steps people might take to move from a scarcity mentality when the need is so great and the resources are so limited? Interested?

  7. John-
    Thank you for this post, and Pam thank you for sharing it with me. Here are my thoughts:

    As people, we are driven by self preservation. It is in our DNA. As NPO professionals, we are driven by the mission to affect change.

    The confluence of these two forces in a climate of scarce financial resources can certainly lead to a work environment replete with silos and a foster a sense of victimization. Having worked in the television industry for 20 years I can spot a silo at 100 yards.

    Now as a nonprofit professional, my reaction is that the reality is that the resources are scarcer. OK. That is a fact. Either you will become a victim of the circumstances, or you as a organization will take internal stock, reorganize priorities and possibly streamline operations to address the new reality. I have never interacted with an organization that cannot change SOMETHING to address market conditions.

    There is a wonderful article in this past month’s Harvard Business Review entitled ‘Inside the World’s Most Creatively Managed Company’ (I apologize but I do not have the link). My next blog post will talk about this company and its innovative practices that create accountability, eliminate all management positions (yes, I said ALL) and give responsibility for decision making to the individual.

    My response to your very well thought out article is that we can circumvent much of this feeling of the ‘Gladiator Culture’ with accountability and responsibility given to individuals.

    Ownership breeds pride, decreases the sense of helplessness, and eliminates the ‘victim’ culture. Increased ownership of the mission on an individual employee level would go a long way to restoring the culture of collaboration and generosity.

    I look forward to continuing the conversation with you.

  8. Jon Hardie says:

    Yes Yes & Yes Andrea and yes to talking further.

    Yes Marti – a flat matrix managed non hierarchical model – where multi-disciplinary pods/tiger teams of folks emerge to engage issues and opportunities in a lean agile nimble responsive and adaptive approach.

    When we build shared, collaborative responsive listening learning cultures- they evolve iteratively and incrementally, and are nourished buy a process that builds shared awareness, understanding, agreement, ownership and buy-in – morale, innovation and creativity thrives

    One successful approach – check your egos at the door > don’t confuse ideas with authorship > let the best ideas rise to the surface – everyone wins

  9. Thanks, Jon. Yes, I agree that changing attitudes within the organization is so important to outcomes. Here’s an articles by another colleague that helps take your post to that next step: Culture Matters: 5 Tips for Facilitating Collaboration from

  10. I could not agree more about checking egos at the door!! Listen and learn and listen some more.
    We would all benefit from collaborating with more listeners and fewer divas!

  11. Jon Hardie says:

    Thanks Bonnie. Apologies for a longer thoughtful response. An observation: an organizational gestalt, i.e, A Culture of Scarcity, perfuses every nook and cranny. So partial fixes & isolated interventions, rarely gain institution-wide traction.

    What I HAVE found most helpful, is an ongoing, incremental, iterative, broadly inclusive, trust building, opening & team building process.

    With everyone at the table we want to create a safe place that builds a solid 1) shared awareness 2) shared understanding 3) shared agreement 4) shared buy-in and 5) shared personal and group ownership.

    p.s. you don’t move to the next step 1-5 until everyone is on-board.

    One question I ask early on of each person is to invite them to share with the group, “Who do you depend on to do your job?”

    (it often takes a couple iterations of the group – because everyone discovers they are connected – to everyone – in ways they never imagined.) it’s great fly on the wall moment!

    Here is a one-on-one team group exercise, I’ve found useful.”2 Reasons why we can’t seem to understand each other” – that both ends with (and begins with insight) with folding the model, in half. You can find a brief description here

    Bonnie, you know that Org transformation is a huge opportunity for growth- it requires lots of thoughtful pre engagement, and is incredibly empowering of a responsive listening and learning culture and and and bunches of other stuff.

    Finally, the classic line: “How many therapists does it take to change an organizational culture?” Answer; “Just One, but the organizations has to want to change”.

    Our core outcome, is to work ourselves out of a job – and facilitate creating an environment where “the wanting to change the outcomes and future together becomes a powerful internal driver owned by the group.”

  12. Sandy Rees says:

    I’m sick of all the nonprofit staff and Board members who focus on the perceived lack of resources. It’s used as an excuse so that they don’t have to get off their backsides and actually do any fundraising.

    The truth is that there’s plenty of money out there, you just have to ask for it.

    Sandy Rees
    Fundraising Coach

  13. Jon says:

    Sandy, interesting perspective. Thanks for your candor! A couple thoughts…

    In a clinical setting, it’s really easy to see (from the outside) the gestalt, the maladaptive behaviors, and the systemic patterns and reactive cycles in clients or patients. It’s also a behavior reflected in the literature – for thousands of years.

    As consultants we are faced with these “aha, if only would do X” moments with clients … every day. And of course, elevators in hospitals are covered with reminders that kvetching about patients not following doctors orders (controlling their diet,stopping smoking, getting off the couch and exercise), is not a good elevator speech.

    It’s an easy peer to peer conversation to fall into – because folks don’t always do what’s best for them – or for their organization.

    Sandy as you noted – it’s really, really frustrating when folks hire a consultant “to fix the problem for them” – not with them – and when offered a series of strategies and tactics and action steps to address them … they seem unable to “get it, organization-wide” and quickly lapse into their old scatological – but familiar – ways of engaging each other and their problems.

    So, what to do: I’ve found – however frustrating it may be – that it’s important to acknowledge and start where people are – not where we – or they – want them to be. And really listen to all of the stakeholders. Then, working together, thoughtfully, patiently,supportively. responsively, and safely – build organization-wide shared awareness, understanding, agreement buy-in and ownership … and a shared, owned and realistic and transformative path forward.

    When the issues are deeply ingrained in the culture – we have to start there. Everyone invariably wants this stuff to change and get better – they many not know how to get there.

    I realize again and again, that it is as frustrating for each stakeholder in the organization – in not seeing a clear healthy path to the future – as it is for the consultant who really want to help them get there successfully.

    Our job, our opportunity to be good listeners, and good aggregators, adapters and facilitators of best practices

    … and to walk the talk, with them, and model real engagement, with them … and trust the process, with them. We are really midwives in this organizational transformation process, aren’t we?

  14. An amazing well-written and accurate description!

    Thank you also for challenging people to create an environment with a nonprofit can succeed.