Wearing Many Hats But Keeping Monkeys at Bay

Posted: December 30, 2016

I was at an event recently where an executive director I know shared the familiar frustration of the “many hats” a nonprofit leader must wear. In this case, it was having to take on the lion’s share of organizing an event at a time when you are already in the midst of end-of-year fundraising tasks, feeling overwhelmed.

caps-for-saleAs I pondered further the many-hats balancing act of nonprofit leaders, an image came to mind: the peddler in the classic children’s book Caps for Sale. No doubt my education roots are responsible, yet I see parallels – and cautions. Wearing a skyscraper stack of caps, the peddler pauses for a nap, to the delight of a band of mischievous monkeys.

Wearing your own stack of hats? You’re not alone. But are there ways to avoid overwhelm in December – or, at least, to make it a happy task managing a deluge of donations.

Does Overwhelm Come With the Territory?

Nonprofit leadership has always been one of my areas of interest, and in this last year I’ve deepened that focus. That concentration has given me more insight into the knowledge, skills and talents that combine in a strong nonprofit leader. For better or worse, the capacity to wear “many hats” – to take on multiple roles and responsibilities – does come with the territory when you lead the whole of an organization. The hat that sits closest to head and heart is “director.” Yet when reality bites – that’s how the development hat may be added, and with it the donor relations hat.  And perhaps the PR hat, with the garnering community goodwill hat, also goes onto the growing stack.

It’s not true for all nonprofits, of course. But particularly for small ones, or startup ones, that’s not an exaggerated image. It’s one reason an executive director’s job is incredibly demanding. It’s also why leadership training and coaching should be comfort stops in executive director territory. Sustained support makes wearing many hats easier,  to stay on track and fewer opportunities for monkey business.

What Can Change – and How to Do It

In terms of the year-end overwhelm that’s frustratingly typical of nonprofits, I’ve said it before that the tin cup mentality is a problem. Relying so much on donors prompted to give by the season of goodwill or the year-end charitable deduction leaves nonprofits exposed. If the numbers are lagging, with the clock ticking toward December 31, panic can easily set in. I’ve seen it coming in some recent exchanges and offer a solution to consider.

One is a greater push for monthly giving. Yes, it can be complicated, which is confirmed by an article in The Wall Street Journal online [“The Art of Suggested Donation Amounts,” Dec. 11, 2016]. Two business professors aimed to definitively answer for nonprofits what the optimum suggested monthly donations should be. As they explained, set numbers high and get fewer donors; set them low and get more donors but smaller donations. Yet, their research concluded there is no one-size-fits-all set of numbers for suggested donations. Each organization has to do its own math.

Still, even $10 over 12 months provides an assurance of $20 more to work with than a more typical one-time gift of $100. Sure, there is administrative time in monthly gifts, but that’s also where wise use of technology can simplify and streamline.

Another potential solution is to do more with mid-level donors – those who give more than $100-a-year general donors but are not at $thousands-plus major donor status. Research shows that to effectively develop mid-level donors, nonprofits need to clearly define those donors, recognize them as unique from general donors and major donors, consider how best to cultivate them and how much to invest in development efforts. 

Happier 2017 Resolutions

Bottom line, if you’re spending another December feeling overwhelmed, with a stack of hats on your tired head and a tree full of monkeys in view – make your first January resolution right now. You may not be able to shed all the hats, but there are ways to keep the monkeys at bay. Resolve to find those ways. They’re out there – along with professionals to help. You can count me as one!