What’s Driving Your Nonprofit: Opinion or Expertise? There Is a Difference!

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You either like or dislike Picasso’s work. That’s your personal view or attitude. But art experts judge Picasso as a seminal artist, a game-changer. You hire a lawyer and pay attention to what she says without wasting too much time offering your ill-informed or uninformed opinions about the law. You hire a doctor and don’t second-guess her surgical methods.

There’s a substantive difference between personal opinions that are not based on expertise and informed opinions, which are based on expertise and a body of knowledge and research. Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector seems full of opinions, and far too many are the bad kind: ill informed and/or uninformed.

For example, say your boss doesn’t like the direct mail letter that you wrote. Your letter is based on the body of knowledge and research from people like Mal Warwick, Sean Triner, Jeff Brooks, Jerry Huntsinger, and Tom Ahern. But your boss isn’t “comfortable” with the letter. In his opinion, the letter doesn’t represent the agency well. Who is the fundraising expert at your agency? Not your boss. (And not your board chair or any of your board members either, by the way!) The expert better be you!

Here’s another example. Your board chair, the bank CEO, runs a tight board meeting. She uses the executive committee (which I’m on a mission to destroy, as I have previously written here) to work through all issues before the board meets. Committees report at each meeting. Board dialogue is limited, as my article “Conversation is a Core Business Practice” points out.

As the executive director, you’ve studied the body of knowledge about governance by attending workshops and reading books and research. You also serve on boards. You’re trying to improve governance at your agency – and that certainly includes board meetings. But your board chair graciously chuckles and says, “I’ve served on more boards than you are old. We’ll stick with my tried and true approach.”

Your board chair thinks her years of board service make her an expert in governance and board development. But she’s wrong. Experience alone doesn’t make her an expert. She needs the book knowledge and the research findings.

Opinion-Based Approaches and Lousy Fundraising or Governance

There’s something else that is disturbing about the use of personal opinions and experience in fundraising and governance. Too often, this approach leads to lousy fundraising and governance that other people observe and participate in…and then copy.

For example, I find that most boards are somewhat (or largely) dysfunctional. I’m talking about the supposedly sophisticated boards with their supposedly knowledgeable staff and their powerbroker board members. Yes. Most boards are not that good. And it’s not just me who says so. Read the research from for-profit and nonprofit sector publications like Harvard Business Review and, yes, Nonprofit Quarterly, and and and…

Here’s another example. Let’s say one’s fundraising isn’t doing all that great. Why? Well, there’s the donor retention crisis that began before the 2008 recession. There may be a lack of knowledge about donor satisfaction. Other issues might be insufficient personal face-to-face solicitation, or lousy donor communications. But too many fundraisers don’t know or follow the body of knowledge and research. And those that do too often get stymied by bosses and boards with personal opinions.

Stop Living in a Fact-Free Zone

There’s another problem we have in our work (and in our society at large): fact denial and fact deniers. As Eric Foner stated in a great commencement address for doctoral candidates at Columbia University, “We live in a world where scientific knowledge is subordinated to political and religious dogma, where intellect and expertise are denigrated as elitist, where demands proliferate that history be taught as an exercise in national self-congratulation, not critical self-examination.”

Instead of acting as critical thinkers – learning the body of knowledge and using good research – too many people assert their personal opinion. And these people demand that all others accept the validity of their personal opinions. In fact, parts of our society (and our enterprises, no matter the sector) too often deny facts and assert opinion. Global warming anyone? As Chris Mooney wrote in a marvelous Mother Jones article, there’s actually a “science of why we don’t believe science.”

We need to stop the uninformed and ill-informed opinions and the fact-deniers! Uninformed or ill-informed personal opinion has an impact on the work we do. These opinions – too often promoted by whichever “powers that be” control your life or our agency or our world – stop forward progress. These opinions distract us from the right work and they compromise integrity.

The job of good and competent professionals – and ethical leaders – is to graciously and forcefully disengage from uninformed and ill-informed opinions.

On the April 9, 2012 edition of Seth Godin’s wonderful blog, Godin writes, “Is everyone entitled to an opinion?” He answers, “Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean we need to pay the slightest bit of attention. There are two things that disqualify someone from being listened to:” “lack of standing” and “no credibility.”

You and I need to pay particular attention to “no credibility.” As Seth notes, “An opinion needs to be based on experience and expertise.” So you and I better acquire and maintain that expertise and experience.

  • Karla Raines

    I couldn’tt agree more. There is a tendency to “copy/paste” ineffective practices in governance and fund raising in particular. When considering the sources of expertise, solid experience with a track record of success is one element. The other, as you noted, is research. Unfortunately not all research is conducted properly, nor do the users understand the inherent limits within the data and the findings. Too often then, “research” becomes another form of “opinion” couched in a term that connotes something reliable and trustworthy. Care needs to be taken to ensure the research is solid and actionable.

  • Carole Rylander

    Hip, hip, hooray Simone . . . so well stated! Extending your great article in a related, but slightly different direction: Where do nonprofit leaders learn governance and fundraising? Opportunities to learn about these critical practices are not imbedded into our educational processes like learning to drive a car or manage personal finances. We must be clear and consistent to change the status quo. 1) Knowledge of governance and fundraising is required to be an effective nonprofit leader. The fallacy that anyone can provide nonprofit leadership using only their professional expertise and personal wisdom is pervasive. 2) Nonprofit staff leaders must be intentional about furthering their expertise in these areas and leading their boards by asking the right questions. Staff leaders are very intentional about programs and services. What would result if they were as intentional in engaging the board? Wow! 3) While special knowledge is required, none of this is “rocket science” and it can be fun!

  • Sean O’Donnell

    It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

    —Upton Sinclair

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks for the great comments, colleagues. Karla, your “copy/paste” image makes me weep and laugh and yell – and nod! Ah Sean, between our own biases – and then the money thing – we sometimes seem doomed, eh?

    And Carole, you remind me of what I say when I teach governance – at Saint Mary’s University or in my various workshops and with my clients! We are taught management from our early days as children. “Finish your homework and you can go out and play.” That’s management. But who learns governance?! If you’re on a sports team you learn (hopefully) teamwork and the concept of the group. So that helps a bit with governance, the concept of the group and group decision-making. But a sports team doesn’t make decisions together. The quarterback or coach makes the decision. (That’s my little bit of understanding about sports – since I don’t pay attention to sports!)

    I’m always stunned that job descriptions for nonprofit CEOs rarely mention “governance expertise and experience.” I’m too often stunned and what we don’t bother to learn – including understanding what we don’t know and need to learn. I hope everyone has read CompassPoint’s UnderDeveloped Report. Talk about frustration at all levels.

    So let’s start a bigger wave of critical thinking, expertise not opinion. And let’s fight the science of why we don’t believe in science. You all really must read Chris Mooney’s article.