Why Stopping Your Program Intake May Be The Best Way to Help Others (and your Organization)…

A recent conversation with a nonprofit colleague struck a chord deep inside me. We were talking about a recent program that he had funded by a government agency. He was stating how demand was so over the top that they were nearly doubling the number of individuals they were serving, compared to what the number they had forecasted. He seemed drained. “There are just so many people who need help right now….”

I asked him how his outcomes were. He stated they were better than forecasted. I told him, “So, now, it is time to stop your intake”. He looked at me like I was crazy. ” But we are only 7 months, into a 12 month contract! There are so many people who need our help.”

Having been there myself more than once, I understood his mindset. You want to help everyone you can. You want to demonstrate to funders that you can deliver a successful program. You want your program to do well.

Now consider the flipside. You were paid to do a job. That is what a government contract demands. If you more than double the number of people you serve, several situations arise, all of which negatively impact yourself and the organization and people you lead.

First, you demonstrate to funders that you really do not understand your expense forecasts. How are you able to service so many with the amount of money requested? Either your cost estimates were way off base per person, or your capacity estimates were not accurate. Perhaps you are not offering the same level of service to all individuals. This is not fair either.

Second, you demonstrate to funders that you were too conservative with your forecasts. You could have “done” more but instead you played it safe with estimates. I know everyone does it, but should we not be dreaming bigger and more aggressively to solve our societal level problems?

Third, you burn out your team. Everyone has a capacity and a limit to their caring. The more we push this in our teams, the more we do “sprints” of working really hard to deliver results, the more we overload those around us, the more likely they are to leave, to burnout, to stop their doing their job. The same way we are told to put on an oxygen mask before we help others, we also, as leaders, need to look out for our team and their “caring capacity”.

Four, blowing your numbers out of the water, really does not impress anyone. We all get it. There is a crisis in the social services sector. There are so many who need help. Are you going to “blow your numbers out of the water” each time? I did it several times but burnt out a team and myself in the process. A funder may raise an eyebrow at your deliverables, but do you think you are really the first one to deliver amazing results? Amazing results are delivered (and engineered-yes engineered) by many. So really you are not that special.

Finally, how are you going to “help” others, when your team is no longer exceptional? Truth be told, funders have seen it all, and know not everyone can “hit it out of the park” every time. Is it not better to be an organization that is consistent, rather than exceptional each time? Experimentation and innovation are really much better places to invest than in teams and organizations that burn themselves out. Funders are looking for innovative solutions but also consistency and predictability.

My vote is for consistency. In the same way that consistency is the key to good health, so is consistency in our deliverables and outcomes. Do less and you are investing in the health of your people and organization for the long-term. Yes, I understand that we serve humans and this is not the private sector. Find other ways to help them. Let your people recover, have downtime/creative time, and the innovation will take care of itself.

So yes, cancel your intake once you hit your limits or just over. It is a far better investment in the long-term than “blowing your numbers out of the water” will ever be.

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