Nonprofits Attract 2 Kinds of People

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Keep the RulesRecently I spent time on the receiving end of two great nonprofits, Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children and Ronald McDonald House (RMH). Both organizations do amazing work to serve families.

I’ve spent over 18 years as a leader in nonprofits, so whenever I have a chance to be the customer/patient I pay attention. I’m watching for the insights that can only be mine through the eyes of a recipient.

It is impossible to see all the assumptions you make about your own organization as a provider, but as a recipient you clearly see the assumptions other’s are making in their organization. Often the best way to evaluate what you do is to be on the receiving end of what others do.

The impetus for every nonprofit is a cause, and effective nonprofits clarify a compelling mission around that cause.

RMH keeps families together to help kids heal faster and cope better. My family interacted with dozens of employees and volunteers at RMH who embodied that mission. We also encountered a few who had forgotten the mission and where just keeping the rules.

This past week my recipient eyes noticed that nonprofits attract two kinds of people: mission pursers and rule keepers. Here is the difference:

Mission pursers focus on the cause. They see the organization as a means to meet the needs of people. So they err on the side of connecting people with helpful resources regardless of the rules.

Pursuers value rules; they are NOT anarchists. But they operate in the wisdom of rules. Pursuers know that rules should never take the organization off-mission or place a hurdle between the mission and the customer/patient.

Rule keepers guard the system. They see rules as a means to protect the organization. So they err on the side of guarding the rules regardless of the need.

Keepers value people; they are NOT haters. But they operate in the equity of rules. Keepers think, “If I let ONE break the rule, then ALL will break the rule.” This thinking leads keepers to make the mistake of elevating the rules above the mission.

I like how Philip Calvart shares his experience of standing in a long check-out line because two cashiers are unable to share their change drawers. Philip makes the common sense suggestion of sharing change to one of the cashiers who quips that the store has lots of rules including rules against common sense.

Depending on your personality you either feel liberated or terrified by this idea of breaking rules for the sake of common sense. So here is a guideline to help you know if your pursuing mission or just keeping rules:

If you break the rule to help meet someone’s need, that’s pursuing mission. If you enforce a rule solely out of fear that others will take advantage, that’s rule keeping.

An Example of Violating Mission

RMH has a “house rule” that minors must be with their parents at all times. At the RMH my family visited there was a game room for teens equipped with a pool table, fusbol, game consoles and flat screen TV’s. On the door it said, “For ages 13 and older.”

These rules were a challenge since I was staying at RMH with our 9 yr. old and two teen-age children. I could not leave my 9 yr. old and go with our teen-agers to the game room nor could I let my teenagers go alone while I stayed with my 9 yr. old.

Unfortunately we encountered a “rule keeper” who said both rules must be kept and therefore my teens could not enjoy the game room.

The “13 and older” rule is a good rule and RMH shouldn’t discard it, but I’m sure RMH didn’t intend for the rule to violate it’s mission of keeping families together.

A mission pursuer wouldn’t be afraid to break the rule in order to fulfill the organization’s mission.

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