Sparrows and Stakeholders

Who is the Daddy Warbucks of your organization?

Every nonprofit organization or church has one or more stakeholders. These stakeholders may be wealthy individuals, major funding sources, or the charitable group’s home office. They are often the ones who contributed the lion’s share of the group’s start-up capital. They may be the distant foundations who provide grants or an ever-present Daddy Warbucks who shows up unannounced and demands things be run his way. Often the vision of these stakeholders is in conflict with either the cultural heart of the members, or the organization’s current reality, or both. For churches the denominational leadership is always a major stakeholder — not because they vetted the pastor — but because they own the charitable franchise and, perhaps a hundred years ago, started the congregation.


I am currently working with a small, non-profit, arts center housed in a building that it rents their from its largest stakeholder. Since he is not a member of the organization and does not attend board meetings, no one thinks of him as a stakeholder. In the start-up period, however, he provided a free building for four month. Now that the artists are paying rent, this stakeholder is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Unfortunately, his expectations match neither the vision the artists have for their center, nor the current reality of the center’s funding stream.


When I talk to stakeholders, both at the denominational level regarding small churches, and at the funding level relating to nonprofits like the arts center, I hear concerns relating to size and sustainability. Grantors and bishops always want their wards to be bigger and finding more matching funds. Stakeholders rarely consider the fact that a cultural barrier might exist between the current reality of the church or nonprofit and the hopes that the stakeholder has for the organization. Those who give the bucks say, “Dream big!” The members say, “We are who we are, and what we are currently doing matters to us.” Most stakeholders have a business background. These gentlemen do-gooders are rarely content with just doing good, they want to do great. 


Size barriers are real. Looking at the wildlife of my neighborhood, I see on the bottom level a multitude of birds, chipmunks, and lesser critters. On the next, middle level, I see the neighborhood cats and dogs. Then on the top level, there are deer and the teenagers who pass by, cell phone in hand and oblivious to those below. The thing to realize is sustainability or virtue has nothing to do with size. Further, asking one creature to behave like another is ridiculous. I would say about the residents of each of these three levels that they have no idea what life is like for those above or below them. Size determines the range of one’s behaviors. Our eyes naturally focus on what is at our level. The chipmunk may grow fat at my bird feeder, but he will never become a cat.


Obviously, stakeholders and the local members of a charitable organization need to be more honest and realistic when they deal with each other. Among churches, the mid-size congregation, like the family’s collie dog, is most likely to have an enmeshed relationship with the denomination. This makes them change resistant and the least likely of the three levels to respond appropriately to their neighborhood’s needs. God keeps his eye on the small church sparrows and they survive from crisis to crisis. The big churches and critters need to keep doing big things, which makes them interesting in a trophy on the wall kind of way. The point is not to envy those who live on a different size level.