Do Non-Profits Spend Too Much Money on the Wrong Things?

control-trusted-pelicanstreet-com-sfox-illustrationI recently left a non-profit company, where my initial role was the managing editor of a Society’s monthly journal. Five years later, as I handed in my 6-month resignation (because my work covered such a variety of tasks in the society), I was leaving having added to my title:

  • Graphic designer (postcards, posters, membership ads, magazine covers);
  • Project manager for the Society’s new website;
  • Overseer of the website’s server;
  • Designer/builder/ trainer of the Society’s Chapters’ WordPress websites;
  • Creator of the Society’s first, bi-weekly, digital newsletter;
  • Launcher of many of the Society’s social media tools;
  • Content director and integrator for all things digital, including member spotlight in the magazine, the newsletter, social media and in videos;
  • Coordinator of three partnership projects (two digital and one print) between other national agencies and the Society;
  • Plus, I served on multiple committees and served with each new president to accomplish important Society presentations and projects.

While I was employed by this Society, I was also moonlighting for another.

While the full-time Society was spending money left and right (and losing members just as fast), the smaller Society was spending very little money and doubling its membership.


It was a simple matter.  The smaller Society put the members’ needs first.  Everyone felt enabled to work together to fulfill the member requests.

The bigger Society’s had an office culture where “that would be too much work” was dialogue that often rang throughout staff meetings. There were those who “did” and there were those who were simply bothered.

Some disturbing vignettes (or horror stories!):

  1. Two thousand dollars spent to send three staff members to a meeting to learn how to enhance membership, and two of the staff went together to every presentation with “automation” in the title.
  2. Offering to teach WordPress, free, to all the members as a member benefit at the annual meeting, but being told that this might step on the education coordinator’s toes.
  3. Offering to post more on Social Media, because it simply was not being tended to daily – and what was being posted were simply announcements, e.g., there was no “social” in the media, and being told no, because it meant stepping on the social media person’s toes.
  4. Offering to add member spotlights on the membership portal, but being told no, because this might step on the membership director’s toes.
  5. A discussion about annual meetings and new members: “Let’s give new members a badge that shows they are new, so we can say hello to them and introduce them to others at the annual meeting!” “Only if I’m stuck in the elevator.”

This is an incredible Society that does very important work and is filled to the brim with scientists and professionals who are making a difference with their work. Unfortunately, these members did not see the day to day lackluster that took place at headquarters. Instead of the office culture changing to accommodate the members, more directors were hired. By the time I left, the Society had just around 20 employees and 6 directors.  In fact, that was the reason I did leave.

It’s frustrating for an employee who wants to fill in the holes with good stuff for members – and who has a proven track record to fill those holes – to be told that what the staff needs is more important than what the members need. And, yes, okay, staff is important – but there are ways to make a staff feel even more important.  How? By creating an environment where people feel rewarded for what they do for members. By creating an environment where people want to work as teams to accomplish very cool objectives.

But hiring more managers can’t do this.

This can only be done by hiring a director who can make all staff feel secure enough in their position, so they feel enabled to work together with other staff.  Competition between staff should not only take a back seat to an eagerness to work together to do what is best for members, but it should be packed up and put into the trunk of the car and driven away.

Spending money on managers to oversee employees automatically indicates that the staff isn’t trusted enough to do their job right. If staff is allowed to do their job correctly, they don’t need to be managed.  Instead, that money can go into scholarships and prizes and education that will serve and grow and highlight the importance of the membership.

Members deserve their membership money to be spent on a staff that – hands down – puts the membership needs above office territorial divisiveness. Don’t believe me? Just ask the members.

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