In approaching the idea of “coalitions of the willing,” I’ll do what makes most sense to me right at the top: Split the two terms and talk about them separately for a while, and then bring them back together, and wrap it all up (hopefully) in a neat package.
So, let’s start with “willing” and get that out of the way first. Based on my 18 years of experience on the grantseeking side of the table, and now nearly 17 years on the grantmaking side, during which time I’ve spent a great deal of effort in and around coalitions and collaboratives and collectives, I’d say right now that pretty much no one in this room is actually willing to take on another coalition. In fact, most of you are likely downright unwilling, and probably grumpy at the thought. If you’re not checking your email right now, you will be shortly, and reminding yourself about everything that’s going on back at the office and grumbling about what a waste of time all of this is.
Fair enough. I’ll assume that more of you are unwilling than willing, but that then leads to the question of “Why are you here?” Again, my experience tells me you’re here defensively—that is, you want to know what’s going on, and what you might stand to gain or lose because of it. Everybody usually comes to the first meeting. After that, it’s generally a crapshoot. A small core will continue, maybe get something going, a few more folks will come back, and at some point, everyone will find their “WIIFM”—their “What’s in it for Me?”—that will let them justify continuing to participate.
WIIFM and willingness are directly related. WIIFM is the first rule of fundraisers everywhere: People give money or time only when they perceive there’s a benefit to them personally, even though the benefit is ostensibly to someone else. WIIFM isn’t a bad thing—it’s a human thing. Mother Theresa had a WIIFM. She certainly had service to her religion in mind, but I believe she also had something personal that was central to her willingness to continue her very difficult work. I don’t know what that was…maybe something in her early life. Maybe a personal friend she carried in mind. Whatever it was, it was what made her willing to keep going.
Many people are unwilling, even embarrassed, to identify their WIIFM in relation to their nonprofit work or support. It’s charity, after all, and we are supposed to be doing or giving selflessly, for the good of others, not selfishly, or for ourselves. But it doesn’t actually work that way, and there’s plenty of research on why people give or volunteer to substantiate that, to the extent that some research has identified seven specific reasons someone would be willing to give or volunteer. It could be a tax break; it could be having some personal connection to the work; it could be responding to a friend’s interest that has nothing to do with anything else. And let me say this again: WIIFM is not a bad or shameful thing. It isn’t something that should be hidden or avoided. In fact, most good fundraisers will look intently for the potential donor’s WIIFM, whether it’s a person or a foundation, in order to understand why that donor would be willing to give or volunteer. The best fundraisers can show a donor why the donor would benefit from giving, not why the organization would. Because willingness is personal, not institutional. That leads to the second most famous rule of fundraisers: People give to people, not to institutions.
So, everyone here this morning is secretly, maybe unconsciously, looking for their WIIFM. And again, to be clear: you’re not looking for the WIIFMO, or “What’s in it for My Organization.” That’s ostensibly why you’re here, maybe even primarily why, in your mind. But if you, personally, don’t find a way to become willing to continue, then you won’t, which means your organization won’t.
So, a corollary rule here is that people interact with people, organizations don’t interact with organizations. And that’s a rule that’s almost always forgotten or ignored in the formation of coalitions. It matters as much, and probably more, what people are at the table as it does what organizations are. When people talk about their experiences with various coalitions, they don’t say “Boy, that NFMMC is sure blah blah blah”; they say, “Boy, that Sheila Kee is sure blah, blah, blah.” For all the great expectations that are assigned to coalitions, and what organizations must be present, success or failure or stagnation almost always comes down to the people who are there and how they interact. It might be critical in everyone’s view that such-and-such an organization be present in the coalition, but if the person from that organization is unwilling, then the organization’s ‘presence’ will be useless.
This leads to a critical point: “How you are there” is as important as “Why you are there,” and “How you are there” is directly related to your willingness to be there, which is tied directly to your WIIFM. Come to an understanding about that in your engagements, and you may find more personal reward in your coalition work, or maybe a good reason to spend your time elsewhere.
But, you may be asking yourself, why should anyone be there at all? That is, why build a coalition? From an operations standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense. It doesn’t really save time, it doesn’t usually save money, and it can lead to a lot of aggravation. The for-profit sector is pretty mystified by the whole activity and looks at it as just one of the ways that nonprofits fail to manage their businesses well. However, that criticism is offered from the framework of a fundamentally different enterprise. Let me float up to the 30,000-foot level again for a moment and explain.
I’ll start by saying that I believe that capitalism is neither moral nor immoral. It is amoral, which means that it is simply a set of instructions to guide a particular set of activities. How those instructions are interpreted and applied is what is good or bad. So, saying that for-profit enterprise is different from nonprofit enterprise doesn’t mean that one or the other is better or worse. It only means that the rules for one cannot be applied to the other in a wholesale way, which is what tries to happen all too frequently.
I once published an essay in the Nonprofit Quarterly called “‘Not for Profit’ is Not ‘For Profit.’” Here’s why: The basis of activity in the for-profit sector is extractive and transactional, and the primary goal of the activity is to maximize profits for small groups of people. That means that the for-profit enterprise exists to take things out, to extract them, like raw materials or natural resources, and create some product or service that will lead to a transaction, a sale, with buyers. The transaction is direct between buyer and seller, and that completes the cycle. As far as the for-profit enterprise is concerned, the transaction is zero-sum—that is, whatever part of the cost of product or service, plus profit, that isn’t paid for directly by the buyer is “lost.” But loss is relative in business, much more so than many people believe. By that, I mean that how profit is calculated, and how much profit is enough profit is different for different business people. Many businesses provide greater levels of pay or benefits to their employees, or spend more on environmental stewardship, or to ensure excellent working conditions, all of which change the ways that profits from transactions are allocated. Higher fixed costs lead to lower net profits. But consider that in this way, the profits aren’t lost at all: They are simply allocated differently, to the greater benefit of employees or the community in which the business operates. Regardless, the for-profit enterprise still is fundamentally extractive, transactional, and profit-driven.
Nonprofit enterprises, on the other hand, are relational and restorative, or generative. The basis of activity in the nonprofit enterprise is personal and interactive, and seeks to restore or help generate whatever people need to improve their lives, or the life of the community in which they live. The nonprofit enterprise works with people, usually over a long term, and—especially as it relates to health care—across many aspects of an individual’s life. That work requires trust as its foundation. If an individual does not trust the people who are providing the service (again, the person, not the organization), then they will not be willing to participate, or, in healthcare terms, to comply with what
is being offered to them.
It could be argued that even this exchange is transactional, no different from a for-profit interaction. But there is a critical difference: The person to whom the service is being provided is not usually the source of the payment for the service. I don’t pay my doctor or my dentist or my phlebotomist. Someone else does, and generally, I have no idea what amount is actually paid. So, the nonprofit person-to-person interaction is not zero-sum or about money or profit at all; it’s about the relationship that is established. And it is this disconnect of the cost of service from the third-party reimbursement for that service that destabilizes the nonprofit sector in ways that the for-profit sector does not deal with or need to understand.
This isn’t restricted to healthcare or human services, either. The amount you pay for a ticket to many of the arts organizations you attend is subsidized, sometimes heavily, by outside public or private funders. If most arts organizations had to charge the full amount they needed in order to operate, most of us wouldn’t be able to afford to attend. That’s important because the health of people and communities depends as much on arts and culture as it does on all other nonprofit work, and arts must be as accessible as healthcare and education. Funders frequently decide to change the amount they will grant or stop making grants completely, meaning that all nonprofit budgets are continually in flux. And that’s why, ultimately, the basis of service for nonprofits is interrelational. Nonprofits must rely on people not only as clients or patients or consumers, but as supporters and advocates as well. They need volunteers and donors and telephone bank operators and letter writers. Each side of the interaction in a nonprofit setting needs its WIIFM. Not just, “How can you help me?” but “How can we help each other?” (After, of course, enough time has been spent to establish critical trust.)
But all that still doesn’t really explain what’s up with the coalition thing. It may explain the interaction between an organization and the people who patronize it. But it doesn’t explain why organizations, or more accurately, people from organizations, should sit down with each other and try to figure out how to work in cooperation.
About 10 or 12 years ago, a fascinating man was brought in to Niagara Falls to help kick off what was then being called the Mayor’s Health Care Task Force, or something like that. His name was Lee Kaiser, and the first thing he said to the people gathered there was, “Everything you need to do what you want is already here.” And then he said it again: “Everything you need to do what you want is already here.” What he was driving at is that the nonprofit sector, for many reasons, some of which are actually relevant, operates in a mentality of scarcity. We believe there is never enough funding. There are never enough resources. There are never enough people who understand the
problems we’re dealing with and who will help us advocate for more.
On the face of it, that can certainly seem to be true. But when I look at the combined assets of, say, the five biggest Blah-Blah providers, I see a heck of a lot of resource that isn’t deployed. It doesn’t even matter much what sector of nonprofit we’re talking about. In almost every sector, I can see ways of combining resources that could significantly improve the ways we address issues or provide services. Certainly, the Oishei Foundation has made it a priority to attempt to facilitate this kind of work. By this, I want to make clear, I’m not talking only about getting organizations to merge or fold, although we have helped with some of those. We have been successful and unsuccessful and pretty so-so. And over the course of the last decade, I think attitudes all around have been changing in a positive way toward this kind or work. There is more here that we can use than we see or acknowledge. And there really are ways it can be tapped.
Before any of it will ever be tapped or engaged or deployed, though, relationships must be built, because this is a relational enterprise. Nonprofit organizations are not by and large in competition with each other over market share; they are applying for revenue to many of the same third-party entities, like foundations and state funding agencies. Even that isn’t a competition in the classic for-profit sense, because most of those funders are looking for ways of broadening impact by funding partnerships or collaborations. Again, for-profit enterprise is based on taking away, one from the other, in order to accumulate as much as possible. But nonprofit enterprise is based on building up, wrapping services around, filling in need where there are gaps. That’s a fundamental difference, and seeking funding for that work is not the same as competing for customers or market share. In the nonprofit world, we don’t seek to “crush the competition”—we seek to expand our overall reach.
We are, in the nonprofit sector, working on the broader view, the more inclusive view, and the best of us are trying to invent ways to do that better all the time. There is a notion that capitalism’s greatest contribution to humanity is innovation, which is driven by competition, and that without competition, the nonprofit sector cannot or does not innovate. I submit that’s untrue. Those of us dedicated to this work always look for ways to reach more people, to engage them more deeply and productively, to alter the conditions in which they live so that they, and we, can improve. We play off of each other’s ideas and generate new ideas or approaches, or bring in new ideas from outside. But that’s not being competitive, it’s being generative. We are co-creating. And if we’re not doing that, we’re just talking to ourselves, and not much good generally comes of that.
Even more important, many of us also look for ways to engage the beneficiaries of our work on their own behalf, and doing this is another fundamental reason our work can’t be compared with for-profit work. Engaging people in their own care or the care of their communities requires time in order to build trust, in order to help them understand and act on their own WIIFM, their “Why should I do this?” It is a human process, which is never efficient. It can’t be value-engineered. There are certainly better and worse ways of going about it, and that’s a sound and central reason for experts, like the people in this room, to talk with each other.
In that sense, it is never a waste of time to just talk with the people who are your colleagues, which is different in my view than “meeting” with them. Your willingness to continue to do the work you do depends on productive interactions with the other people in your life, both professional and personal. The intensity of nonprofit work, its basis in personal interaction, is draining by its nature, and all of us need relief and assurance from others, encouragement, ideas, and good and bad stories. I absolutely extend this to social interaction with colleagues, like dinners, non-work gatherings, or even happy hours. Real trust, deep trust, is only built when people find ways to connect without the mediation of flipcharts and PowerPoints and webinars and agendas. Our time as professionals is never wasted when we “just talk.” The more deeply we trust each other, the more ways we will find to innovate and improve the work we do, for the benefit of the communities we serve.
So, I strongly encourage you to think a little differently about what it means to be willing, and what the real value is of sitting around a table with your colleagues. First and foremost, I think, you’re there to find connections with peers, to better understand the people around you who do the same work you do. There can be a primary benefit to you just in that—your WIIFM—and that benefit will extend back to your colleagues and your organization and its work with the people it serves. Whatever work is achieved by “coalitions of the willing” beyond that, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty much gravy.
This article was published in its original form at the “O Journal” blog at the John R. Oishei Foundation’s website.