Nonprofit Lessons in the Wizard of Oz

You know the story. Dorothy is whisked away from her grey and dusty home in Kansas to a colorful land where she goes on a quest accompanied by three magical companions. Along the way she has many challenges and adventures, but successfully completes the quest and returns to her home. Oddly, this tale provides some insight when starting a nonprofit organization.

I write this as a fan of the fourteen books written by L. Frank Baum, and the the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland. In a previous life I read all those books aloud to preschoolers, and I’ve watched and studied the movie since well before I began to work with nonprofit organizations (and that’s a long time). In fact, for several years my business card read “Richard Seymour, That Man Behind the Curtain”.

Other people have written about how in this tale, Dorothy embodies the spirit of a good manager, coordinating the strengths of a team to accomplish a common goal, while understanding and using each member’s motivations. Each of the four companions wants something for themselves, but together they also share the common goal of retrieving the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. They even need to improvise and change plans along the way. That’s a great analogy for managing fledgeling nonprofits, so I wish I’d written something like that. But here I’d like to focus on the members of her team, what each one brought to the table, and why it’s important to balance these attributes when you set out to establish a nonprofit organization.

When you start a nonprofit organization you will need the passion found in the Tin Woodman, the analytical intelligence that the Scarecrow embodies, and the guts to move forward represented in the Lion. These are qualities you are looking for as you build your team of co-founders. Let’s look at them one by one.

The Tin Woodman

In my experience, people who start nonprofit organization have passion in spades. Frankly, the process of establishing a nonprofit organization is bureaucratic and complex enough that without passion, no one would bother. Later on, as the nonprofit organization settles into a routine, however, passions may diminish. Sometimes, it can even feel as if the soul of the organization has gone missing in action.

But early on, this is seldom the problem, and the passion is what fuels the startup and gives it a real meaning. However, with every strength comes a weakness, and the problems related to this passion are usually ones where it is so excessive that founders can be blind to a lack of viability in their idea. They move ahead without thinking things through, and the organization can fail early because of a lack of foresight. If the organization has actually started work before the failure, this collapse usually comes with a heavy dose of burnout.

The Scarecrow

Fortunately, young nonprofits also attract some pretty level-headed and intelligent people. The Scarecrow tries to figure out how things can actually get done. Will this work? What if we tried a different way? What’s the best way to accomplish our mission? These people help formulate plans, and are great at outlining strategies, complete with milestones and target goals.

But just as all heart and no head leads to irrationality and collapse, all head and no heart has its downside. The most rational plans often don’t energize people. People do the work, but without a burning passion, they begin to “phone it in” without a real sense of purpose. Organizations that fall into this pattern see a lot of turnover as people look for meaning in their lives elsewhere.

My own problem is that I find myself analyzing everything, and never being able to prove that any course of action is the right one. “Analysis paralysis” takes over. I can be a very good scarecrow, and usually need to find a tin woodman to work with me. Yet, even when you get both, you can find yourself not being certain about the right way to move the organization forward, overthinking everything. You need a way to stop processing everything ad nauseum and take action.

The Lion

The lions in your organization are the people who are just itching to get started. Without them the organization can stagnate, but if you let them take complete control, you might find yourselves jerking wildly between various goals, constantly starting new programs and projects. The latest thing to come up in discussion might take precedence when  a well-reasoned, on-mission strategy is called for.

When managing a nonprofit startup, it’s important to get a sense for when it’s time to let the lions out and get to work. Since even the best plans have flaws (often undetected until you start the work), moving forward and accomplishing something (anything) provides the scarecrows and tin woodmen with valuable information. Your startup team can’t really learn if they are on the right track until they start navigating down that track.

Another way to put that is that the lions give the tin woodmen in the organization a sense of forward motion, and they give the scarecrows real data to work with. Without the lions, the scarecrows and tin woodmen debate philosophy in their ivory towers while addressing the mission less effectively than they should be.

So you need tin woodmen, scarecrows, and lions to make your nonprofit work and truly become an organization that learns and adjusts as it goes.

An Aside on Imposters and Confidence

It’s worth noting that neither Dorothy nor her three companions starts with any confidence in their own strengths. This is kind of related to a phenomenon called “imposter syndrome” where people don’t believe in their own capabilities. In the story, it is not until Dorothy and her companions  meet the Wizard (who understands he’s an imposter) that they finally realize their hidden strengths. (In fact, it’s not until they actually meet him a second time.) Just as Dorothy learns she could have gone home whenever she wanted, the Tin Woodman discovers that his heart works just fine, the Scarecrow learns he’s really rather smart, and the Lion unearths a wellspring of courage he didn’t know he had. Each of these hidden strengths is put to use and without them their quest would have failed.

I guess this just points out that you can’t judge people entirely by their self-assessment. Many people are Wizards, overselling their abilities, but just as many are like the companions on the Yellow Brick Road, unsure of themselves and ripe for an opportunity to grow. Find some tin woodmen, find some scarecrows, find some lions, and create a team of co-founders that can pick a destination, plan a route, re-evaluate as needed, learn more about themselves, and accomplish something good together.

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