There’s an old proverb that it takes one person to throw a stone in a well, but ten to get it out.

I think the nonprofit equivalent is that it’s vastly easier to start a program than to end it.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s imagine a small community-based social services organization. It was founded twenty years ago to provide services for families with teen mothers. The agency focused in the early days on home visits and other support services by social workers and volunteers, designed to help ensure the babies’ safe and healthy development.

The organization gained a reputation for effectiveness, and soon there was encouragement from families, local government, and donors to create a childcare center for these and similar kids. So the organization built the childcare center and later expanded it. It became a well-respected and important community institution.

So far, so good. Then things got tricky.

About seven years ago, a board member – who was also, by far, the agency’s largest individual donor – proposed that the organization integrate senior care into their work. The board member loved the notion of reaching seniors at the same facility that worked with young children. She offered to fund half the start-up costs and found matching funding from a major foundation. And so the organization launched the new program for seniors.

The senior program worked okay – for a while. But participation was never robust, and then it dwindled further. There was another organization nearby that had clearly established itself as the go-to place for seniors, so the community never really embraced the new program. Meanwhile, funding petered out (as it tends to do: funders love starting new programs, but not supporting ongoing services), and the senior program began losing money at the rate of $120,000 a year. On top of this, the senior program was proving to be a drain on staff morale. The staffing for the children’s programming was very thin, and those employees had grown resentful of what they perceived as lavish staffing levels and expenditures for the sparsely attended senior program.

You would think that it would be fairly simple to eliminate the senior program – or at least to ramp it down over the course of several months. After all, there wasn’t enough demonstrated need and there wasn’t adequate funding.

And yet the CEO and board are finding it hard to pull the plug.

Why’s that?

Well, first there is a sense of obligation for the few seniors who are coming. “What would Mr. Goldblatt do? He loves coming here! We’re his family!”

Second, there’s a sense of guilt about laying off the staff members. Nonprofits, as a rule, hate to fire people.

Third, there’s worry that the organization will be seen as failing.

Fourth, the leadership doesn’t want to offend the donor (and now former board member) who first came up with the idea and the funding.

Fifth, there’s inertia – which in a process-heavy nonprofit (and that describes virtually all nonprofits) can be an impediment to taking decisive action.

I’ve written before that it’s dangerous to draw too many parallels between for-profit and nonprofit business practices – that what works in the corporate world more often than not doesn’t translate to the nonprofit sphere. But when it comes to trimming away unproductive, redundant, or money-losing programs, nonprofits can learn a lesson or two from businesses. (Would Procter and Gamble continue to market a brand of detergent that nobody’s buying? Of course not!)

We have to accept the fact that some program initiatives work out well and some don’t. Nonprofits should certainly be sensitive to the personal needs of their staff: they should never treat the staff in a cavalier way. That said, nonprofits are not obliged to provide lifetime employment to each and every employee. Making smart and fair managerial decisions is not a failure or a weakness, but a sign of strength and effective self-analysis.

There are other examples in the charitable world where, once an activity is started, it’s very hard to stop. For example, nonprofits struggle to rein in the proliferation of special fundraising events. I’ve joked before that the three most frightening words in the English language are “charity golf tournament.” These events can be enormously inefficient. But once those tournaments, galas, art auctions, and fashion shows are launched (usually on a whim, or because of pressure from one or two board members), it’s nearly impossible to stop doing them. They become annual events, resistant to cost-benefit analysis.

Again, it’s easy to throw that stone in the well. But it’s damned hard to get it out.

Listen: times are tough for nonprofits. Demand for services is up. Government funding is down. The Great Recession has not ended so far as the nonprofit world is concerned. The times call for smart and difficult decisions. Nonprofit leaders need to make them. If you simply keep on doing what you’re doing, it may mean that, before long, you won’t be doing anything at all.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2015. All rights reserved.

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