Dani Robbins

Raising our Collective Standards

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on January 20, 2014 at 9:02 am

The low expectations we have of each other never cease to amaze and disappoint me. For the second time in 6 months I have read a piece on giving stipends to the poor and the (shocking?!?) benefits to the family. Why would poor people make any worse decisions on how to spend their money than anyone else?  It further reinforced the thought I’ve returned to again and again in the past few weeks – our expectations and our standards are too low.

I had a board chair that always used to say “kids will raise themselves to your expectations or lower themselves to your suspicions.”  I have come to believe two points: that doesn’t apply only to kids and that we need higher expectations.

If we as nonprofit leaders serve to change the world, and I believe we do (If you don’t, perhaps there is a better suited role for you elsewhere) then it seems to me that we need to roll that intent down through everything we do. As of today, we are not. There are a small amount of great agencies out there doing great work. More often there are agencies that are great at one thing, and mediocre at others. So perhaps the program is strong but the board is weak. Or the grant writing is strong, but the books are un-auditable. Or the executive is well trained but the staff is not. It happens all the time in every community, yet we all know that when any non profit anywhere does something unethical, illegal or inappropriate we are all painted with that same brush.

I know that everything gets graded on a bell curve and that means our agencies do as well. Yet, I don’t accept the premise that that’s as good as it’s going to get and I have to learn to live with it. I want more, and I especially want more from the agencies that are serving the most disadvantaged among us.

If we want people to raise themselves to our expectations – and I do – then we have to have higher expectations! Those should include expecting:

  • our executives to be strong leaders
  • our staff to provide great services
  • our boards to uphold their governance responsibilities
  • our clients to achieve whatever plan they have agreed to achieve
  • our partner agencies to be ethical and impactful
  • our communities to understand how nonprofits work, hold us accountable and help us thrive.

We teach people how to treat us. If that’s true, we as a field have taught people to treat us poorly. We have accepted agencies doing work that is not impactful. We have allowed staff members to remain even as we are clear they are not moving our teams or our missions forward. We have created boards that do little more than rubber stamp the executive’s ideas. We have not challenged often and blatantly enough the ridiculous idea that poor people are poor because of the decisions they made, rather than of policies and circumstances we as a society either made or allow. We have failed to demonstrate that prevention is a million times better and less expensive than the alternative. We have accepted mediocrity or worse, let it flourish.

There’s an idea referred to as Exit, Voice and Loyalty, which is not exactly an accurate reflection of a book by the same name. The premise of the idea (again, not precisely the book) is that there are three options when responding to something with which you are unhappy.

  1. Exit: You can leave.
  2. Voice: You can say something.
  3. Loyalty: You can stay (and be quiet – this is where the idea breaks from the book).

When to leave? When to stay? When to speak up? When to stand down?  It’s very clear and very easy. Three choices. Which do you pick?

We have all worked for bad managers. We have all seen things that are unacceptable to us. We have served under executives that were ineffective and on boards that were as well. We have lived in communities where nonprofits are trying to make a difference and some clearly are, and some clearly are not.

We can change the equation by changing our expectations. Higher expectations will bring greater rewards, and also more resources. What could we as a field accomplish then?

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I want more from the world and I especially want more from our nonprofits. I want them to be better run, with better boards and better staff providing better services.

I don’t want our field to be the least respected field- the third rail of fields. I want it to be the most respected!

Leadership is hard; so is changing the world. Let’s raise the standards; raise our expectations; raise the discussion and raise the issues, each time and every time. Let’s raise more money, too, so we can expand our reach and our impact. If we do, we can raise our field – maybe to becoming the most respected field, which is where we should have been all along.

What do you think is the price of low expectations?  Do you have any stories to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

  1. […] also do or allow a lot of other things as a field that make no sense. As mentioned in Raising Our Collective Standards “There are a small amount of great agencies out there doing great work. More often there are […]


  2. […] also do or allow a lot of other things as a field that make no sense. As mentioned in Raising Our Collective Standards “There are a small amount of great agencies out there doing great work. More often there are […]


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