The Dying of the Light

This post originally appeared on “Fred’s Blog” on The Gathering’s website.

One of my treasures is a framed picture of Peter Drucker, Bob Buford, Tom Luce and myself outside Peter’s house in Estes Park in the early 1990s. Underneath it Bob wrote, “The Beginning of the Social Entrepreneur Network.” It was an idea we had been working on for several years and one that was close to Peter’s heart as it combined two of his basic concepts — the value of the entrepreneur as a creative force and the social responsibility that entailed.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because like the word “philanthropy,” the phrase “social entrepreneur” has morphed over the years. At first, this trend was meant as a description of men and women who had accumulated wealth and were now putting that wealth into social ventures. They had their own skin in the game when they identified areas of opportunity that would be great challenges for their skills, experience, wealth, and relationships. They were proven business entrepreneurs simply moving their focus — sometimes completely and sometimes keeping their hand in the business at the same time. The definition has expanded to include nonprofit incubators and accelerators such as Praxis, Y Combinator and Echoing Green, which were created to help new ventures grow and become healthy. For the last 30 years I have watched the expansion of these start-ups and the extraordinary leadership of their founders and early backers.

While the idea of the social entrepreneur has become broader and now includes anyone starting a nonprofit, I still applaud those who take the risk — even though many nonprofits do not survive the first five years. The “infant mortality rate” of nonprofits is substantial. For example, more than 275,000 nonprofits lost their tax-exempt status in 2011 because of failure to comply with new IRS regulations. Recently, a number of experiences with ministries looking for a miracle has reminded me that this trend — the death of a nonprofit — is natural but not as well accepted.

Nonprofits experience the same life cycle as other organizations. If they cannot innovate and grow they become stale and decline. At some point, the vital signs begin pointing to a hard truth: they are going out of business. Of course, some nonprofits, such as The John M. Olin Foundation, choose to go out of business because they decide they have finished their task, but that is the rare exception. Most hang on as long as they can. Donors depart. Leadership struggles. Stakeholders become frustrated and angry. Boards become weary. Sadly, in the end, the mission becomes survival. It is the worst kind of death, often filled with rancor, denial, blame, disillusionment, and desperate measures to keep the organization alive. I’ve seen enough to know the truth of Dylan Thomas‘ words applied here:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I have a sign over my desk that says, “When The Horse Is Dead Dismount.” It is true but what if we had a way of dealing with the death of an organization that would give it dignity as it goes through the final stages of dissolution? What if we had, for lack of a better word, a hospice for organizations that would provide the same kind of care our loved ones have received from hospice in their final days? What if, instead of desperate measures meant to grasp a few last painful days, we began as soon as the vital signs were obvious the organization was shutting down to provide care instead of criticism? What if, instead of a protracted and painful wasting away, we had a process for closing that gave everyone permission to let go? What if, instead of looking for someone or circumstances to blame, we accepted this as part of life? It’s not fatalism or giving up. It is allowing an organization to have a legacy not marred by a few final days of turmoil and recrimination.

Atul Gawande wrote Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. It is a story built around the protracted death of his father and his own struggle with the last few years of his beloved father’s life. I think the lesson is the same for organizations and those of us who have been part of them:

“Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.”

I think we need to stop raging and begin preparing dying organizations to turn loose gracefully and with dignity for all.

Fred Smith is the President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations making grants to Christian work around the world. Follow Fred on Twitter at @Fred2Smi.

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