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3 Ways to Tell if Your Nonprofit is a Leech with a 501 (c) 3 Status

Updated on July 14, 2012

Not all nonprofits are created equal. Some are just leeches with a 501 (c) 3 determination letter. These orgs aren't breaking the law. They're not laundering money. In fact, they're serving a purpose in our society...

They're conscience banks. They get money because their donors want to feel good about themselves without having to get their hands dirty. They get money because their donors don't want to appear uncaring.

They get money because some of the more well meaning donors think that if you throw enough money at a problem it will go away. Now, I don't think I would have a problem with this model if it wasn't for a couple of snags in the system.

1. A lot of money is being wasted in the name of "change" and "social good."

2. A lot of honest, caring, compassionate people are getting sucked into the whole process.

So Who Are These Organizations?

You might be thinking there are just a few. That this couldn't be true of most nonprofits. The truth is, it's happening on a larger scale than most of us want to admit. They're dwelling among us...sucking the life out of their donors and the entire nonprofit world as we know it. So who are they? They're hard to spot.

I've seen a few, and if I thought calling them out on it would do anything, I'd tell you who they were right now. If you really want to find them, you'll need to see for yourself. Here's three tell-tale symptoms that a nonprofit is a leech.

1. They Focus on the Money

This manifests itself in a variety of ways. As a symptom, it's almost as hard to spot as the disease. One of the more obvious ways I've seen is designing programs around funding:

That gov't program/foundation/person says they'll give $XX dollars to programs that look like XX. Lets get going on designing one.

Usually, if the government or a foundation or some rich guy/gal knows more about the issues and problems a nonprofit faces on the front lines, then that nonprofit ain't doing much of anything. Be on the lookout for the more subtle ways this happens too.

Sometimes you just see it in a fundraiser's eyes when they ask you for money. Sometimes you'll notice an attitude in the staff towards donors. They see people less in terms of people and more in terms of money. How do you think they're viewing the people they serve?

2. They Try to Look as Good as Possible to As Many People as Possible

As Bob Dylan said,

Half of the people can be part right all of the time Some of the people can be all right part of the time But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

The same goes for nonprofits. You can't please everyone. Stop trying. Not everyone is right. Those that try, do so because they think, by doing it, they can reach a larger number of people. They think that by reaching a lot of people, they'll get a larger percentage of people with thick wallets.

That may not be the initial motivation for pleasing everyone, but it's certainly a trap that a lot of people with this symptom fall into. Bob and Abe are right. Only half the people can be part right all of the time. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it! You'll only ever be part right about anything (including how you help people), and only half (probably less) of the people in the world ever even getto "part right." It's not about pleasing the most people you can, it's about being honest and human with the small percentage that truly believes in your cause.

These people may or may not have money, but you'll never change anything without them. And you won't get them if you try to please everyone.

3. They Ain't Talkin

If you see a nonprofit that isn't dialogging with the community they serve, donors or otherwise, about the issues they're involved in, they're most likely a leech. No one can possibly know everything about how to fix a particular evil in society. You need other opinions. You need people who can show you what you're missing. You need to know how you can best help people in need. That won't happen unless you're constantly asking people what they need, or think, or feel.

Whew...Good. My Org Isn't A Leech.

Really? The truth is, all of us are guilty in some way of leeching. Leeches are hard to spot, especially in ourselves. We've all had moments of focusing on money more than what's important to us, trying to please everyone, or ignoring input from others because we think we know best. It happens on a personal level and it can certainly happen on an organizational level. The trouble is, enough of those moments put together can completely compromise the mission of an organization. If we really want to accomplish any amount of change in the world, we have to try as hard as we can to not be leeches.

So How Do We Not Be Leeches?

I'm not sure. We can start be doing the opposite of the three symptoms listed above, but that's only a start. The problem goes deeper than you or I know. It doesn't take much for "leechiness" to sneak it's way into the very core of what we do. The symptoms are endless and multifaceted. My nonprofit articles on Hubpages are all about helping Nonprofits use social media and plain ol' fashioned words to avoid being leeches and accomplish our missions. I don't have all the answers, and social media is just one of many tools to use, but we can certainly learn from each other and explore together how to best to use it to make real change in the world.


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