What is it and who is it that makes non-profits successful? At the end of 2013 there were 1,409,430 tax-exempt organizations in the United States. Though some may be floundering and some are going under, many are flourishing.
I’ve been around non-profits my entire life. I’ve participated actively in board work since 1995 and I’ve been employed by a non-profit. But I’m always a bit mystified by the non-profit world. To be sure, at its heart it has some kind of passion; passion enough to make people give even when they get nothing in return. But the truth is, non-profits draw many types of individuals. They attract the passionate who stay, and the passionate who move on. They attract the politically ambitious who need filler on their personal statistics. They attract trouble-makers and peacemakers. They attract talented people organizationally and disastrous people organizationally. Yet despite the ups and downs and sheer unpredictability of giving, not to mention human nature, non-profits continue to exist.
At the heart of public charities is the business of asking for money. Indeed, the best non-profit leaders are the ones who do this the best. As Mary Pat Matheson, a local non-profit leader, once said to me “When we ask people for money, we are giving them the opportunity to give.” Emphasis: opportunity. Believing this is what makes non-profit leaders like Mary Pat Matheson incredibly successful at what they do.
A beloved local figure in the non-profit educational institutions world passed this week, Jesse Long, the founding President and Chancellor for Greater Atlanta Christian Schools. Jesse was a visionary in the world of non-profits who is worth emulating.
I attended Greater Atlanta Christian School for 7 years and graduated from it in 1979, and though I don’t reminisce much about the awkward high school years, GACS has unquestionably developed a solid reputation for academics and sports; all within the vision of “Christian education”. This speaks to its founding president, Jesse Long, who, according to the figures published in the recent Gwinnett Daily Post article about him, was the acting president from 1963 until 1998, when he became Chancellor.
I thought the world of Jesse. He was personable, funny, kind. When my brother passed away in 1983 he was there for my parents. And I’ll never forget him offering me a ride home from Georgia State University back in 1980 when we ran into each other while registering for classes; me for undergraduate, he for graduate classes. He must have taken pity on me, all scared looking and alone in downtown Atlanta. And though I had a ride home – MARTA – I gladly took him up on the offer. Talk about a random act of kindness. He didn’t have to do that and most folks wouldn’t have done it.
Jesse definitely had what Mary Pat Matheson alluded to in that conversation with me; the courage to “ask”, the courage to make lots of “asks”, the willingness to give people the opportunity to give.
He also had a quality essential to the success of the school he helped establish – he saw it through. He could have so easily moved on to other schools, other presidencies, but he went the distance because I’m sure he understood that developing a school is a long term project. You don’t build the buildings and then say, “We did it! It’s here. Great knowing all of you.” Building an educational institution is by its very nature long-term because the proof of its excellence is in the capability of the men and women it produces and how they live their lives and contribute to society. Jesse lived long enough to see the fruit of his creation, along with those who created it with him. I’m glad of this.
So, maybe it’s all so simple then. To build any successful non-profit organization like Jesse Long did, or like Mary Pat has done with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, simply ask for money, and lots of it. Stay around for as long as you can. See it through. Endure the troublemakers. Capitalize on your movers and shakers. Bring unison to diverse personalities on your board. Keep placing the vision out there in front.
No. If you think all of that is easy, then not only do you not understand the organic nature of non-profit organizations, you also vastly underestimate the talent, or lack of talent, of non-profit leaders. None of that is easy. None of it is guaranteed. And it all depends upon the will of various and diverse people who may or may not come together, see the vision, and give, give, give to keep it all alive.
Here’s to you, Jesse, for navigating those unseen waters all the way through to the end of your days.