How to Shoot your Nonprofit in the Foot


Is this what's standing between you and your supporters?

I’m taking two friends to see a show at a local theatre this weekend.  They are both theatre fans who recently graduated so it seemed like a good gift.

While we have settled on a date and time, I do not have tickets.

I tried to get tickets.  I went to the website, cringed at the $4 per ticket “convenience” fee for ordering on-line or via the phone but attempted the on-line route anyway–the site was down.

According to the website, the box office was open that afternoon so I got in my car and drove downtown–only to be told the box office was not open–but I could come back that evening to get tickets. . . .

So now, I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping the show won’t be sold out and I can buy our tickets the night of the show.

The really crappy part

Unless you are me, this story is not sad because of the hour I spent trying (and failing) to get tickets.

It’s sad because the theatre has inadvertently set up systems that sabotage their attempts to get new people to see their plays.

What’s worse is your organizational systems probably include similar barriers of which you are completely unaware.

Find your invisible barriers

These problems persist in organizations not because people don’t care, but because the people (like you) who have the power to fix them, almost never see them.  Want to remove your blinders?  Here are some ways to get started.

  • Ask the people who answer your phones what people complain about most.
  • Buy a single ticket for your next event outside of work hours.  (Asking the box office manager to pull one for you at lunch doesn’t count.)
  • Make a donation through your website.
  • Call the main phone number for your organization to ask a question one of your supporters might ask.  If you suspect you are getting special treatment (and frankly, you probably are) ask a friend to make the call for you.

If the results of these experiments produce undesirable results, resist the urge to blame your front line staff.  First, because they did not create the barriers, and second because without their help you’ll never find and remove them.

Potential Fixes

Ready to remove your barriers?  Every organization’s needs will be different, but here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Ask your front line staff for advice.  While these barriers may be surprising to you, they probably aren’t news to the people who answer the phone.   Chances are good they’ve got some ideas about how to fix the problem.
  • Offer discounts instead of adding fees.  If you must charge more for ticket reservations taken over the phone or on-line,  include the fee in the listed price and then offer a discount for tickets purchased at the box office.
  • Implement a donor help line.  Offer donors a single phone number that is answered by a person who will serve as an advocate in getting question answered.  (Ideally, everyone who contacts your nonprofit will get this kind of personal attention, but if that’s not possible, start with donors.)
  • Make sure your website is doing its job.  A website with an intuitive design that always contains the most up-to-date information the organization has to offer goes a long way toward ensuring supporters (and potential supporters) can always get what they need from you.

Your Turn

Make your complaining count!  Share your biggest non-profit pet-peeves best examples of invisible barriers in the comments.  If you see a barrier you know how to fix–be sure to share your advice as well!

3 thoughts on “How to Shoot your Nonprofit in the Foot

  1. My biggest pet peeve is when a live person tells me he/she can’t do something because the computer won’t let him/her. You are a real, live person make a decision.

  2. Boy, you brought back some memories of my box office days! And yes, I’d say that poor communication with front-line people is a huge part of the problem. They can only communicate what they’ve been told. Too often, they’re ignored by the rest of the staff, instead of being used as the potentially powerful first line of welcome to the organization!

  3. Jessica and Mary–thank you both for commenting and illustrating two sides of the problem– It’s frustrating to be the customer AND the person saying “no” in these kinds of situations–because existing systems make both parties powerless to solve the problem.

    Zappos is famous for getting around this by hiring amazing front line service people and then giving them the training and authority to do what ever it takes to make customers happy.

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