Nonprofit Self-Esteem: The Columbia Syndrome

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I want to talk to you about what I call “The Columbia Syndrome.” This is something I have seen over and over again during my decades in the field.

What is it? Well, some time back I had the good fortune of working in the Columbia University development office. I worked there for 10 years, and I am forever grateful for that experience.

But Columbia – one of the wealthiest universities and nonprofits on the planet – had a perceived deficit, a version of “we’re not good enough.”

Can you guess what it was? Simple. In many aspects of its culture, Columbia would compare itself to Harvard, and come up lacking – mostly in terms of the money that Harvard had in comparison. Look it up…Harvard is very rich. An example? During the economic downturn of 2008, I heard one person explain that Harvard’s endowment losses were larger than Columbia’s entire endowment had ever been – and that statistic might actually be not only illustrative, but true! (Disclaimer – I didn’t actually research these numbers…because you get the point of the story.)

I see many nonprofits that feel the weight of being “less than…”

“We’re not Save the Children.” “We’re not curing cancer.” “We don’t have direct services.”

And today…

“We’re not dedicated to fighting racism.” (Fighting racism may not be your nonprofit’s mission, but I implore you to consider how you can evaluate and address implicit bias and systematic racism within your organization.) “We’re not on the front lines of COVID.” “Other nonprofits are doing ‘real’ work, we are more theoretical – so how can we compete?”

These statements can all be true. And, I believe you must dig deep into your mission to both wipe out this thinking and to find the power in what you do and do well.

Why does your nonprofit matter? You know the answer, so listen to it!

How will your nonprofit help make human society better in its own unique way? You’ve said this out loud before, so hear yourself say it again!

If you suffer from “The Columbia Syndrome,” now is the moment to get over it and shine for the sake of all of us. Your work matters.

And, hey, these are not our only ideas on nonprofit self-esteem. In fact, the Heller Fundraising Group team works closely with our clients on this issue because it is crucial for fundraising success. You can read about the connection between rejection and success (and opera!) here.

CATEGORIES: Fundraising