This is a republish of an article written with Dahna Goldstein for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
A Taxonomy of Zombie Non-profits
It’s a hundred days since patient zero started biting people at a Grimes concert, and it didn’t take long for the world to descend into chaos. Now, the shambling dead –many bites removed from those first zombies – hold a majority stake in the world’s population, and you’re stuck trying to get by and help as many folk as you can.
There’s food and water to think about, not to mention shelter. Maybe some tools to keep you and your team safe, and an unknown future facing you as you try to keep those resources coming. If you run low on any other these, you run the risk of becoming one of those shamblers: with little intent or direction, simply walking towards whatever they see or hear in search of brains.
But you’re okay. This isn’t the first time. After all, you ran a successful technology non-profit before the zombie outbreak. While there is (gracefully) no more Twitter, you and your team have a few tricks up your sleeves from surviving the nonprofit tech apocalypse of 2020 (when no one was able to make their strategic 2020 goals and the funding dried up).
In the United States (we’re back in pre-zombie days), there are over 1.5 million nonprofits, but only 10% have budgets over $500,000. While $500,000 can sound like a lot, think of that in terms of staff, resources, rent, travel, server costs, security, insurance, inventory, and overheard. Even a half million doesn’t go as far as one might think.
People survive and thrive in incredible situations. Social Entrepreneurs more so than most, and social tech entrepreneurs (i.e. those working to create technology that serves a social good/public interest) even more so.
Tech nonprofits are particularly prone to being resource constrained. Building, launching, and maintaining a software platform is a multi-stage, multi-stakeholder effort that extends far beyond the confines of the computer. It involves the users, the customers, and those whose lives are impacted by the users of the software and their experience. It involves the donors and the grantmakers, and their understanding of a software program’s lifecycle and needs. It impacts the team building the software, as it cycles through their temperaments and expertise, creating room for growth and opportunities to fail. It also involves adjacent tools created by organizations who are also non-profits, but also who might be for-profits: all scrambling for a similar pool of resources.
Software can be easy to get a “cheap” start on, and deceptive in its completeness. A social tech entrepreneur without a strong technology background might have a (legitimately) great idea, sketch it out, share the ideas, and get it built through contracts for a tiny amount of money. But then what? The software will have bugs. It will require improvements. Assumptions about user needs and revenue models were wrong and need adjustment. Quickly, a social entrepreneur might see their funding dry up.
Once those resources run out, or that critical error is made, it becomes all too easy to hang on to something that is effectively dead. It might still move, it might still even function in a limited way. But it no longer thrives.
But social entrepreneurs somehow manage to not only survive swift zombi-fication, but even thrive in these environments. So what makes for a good survivor?
In 2016, the nonprofit sector saw contributions totalling about $390.05B. While that number seems huge, an average nonprofit only raised $246,641 from a combination of individuals, foundations, and corporations. And when the largest nonprofits, like hospitals and universities, can have budgets upwards of $1B, it becomes easier to see how the flow of capital - the lifeblood of any organization - can be restricted for so many organizations with major actors capturing the majority of the philanthropic capital available..
For many of these smaller organizations, when the financial oxygen is squeezed out of the room, they don’t simply die and disappear: their resources unlocked to be reclaimed by the ecosystem. But rather, they face a kind of undeath. There’s still a bit of capital running through their veins. They display simple functions, perhaps serving a constituency or shambling towards a program that might justify new funding. But they’re not alive, not vibrant, and not doing much good.
When a non-profit becomes a zombie, it is trapped in an incentive paradox that the philanthropic sector creates (and that we wrote about in another article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy). There might still be staff and funds in the coffer, but the capacity to meaningfully engage with the mission is gone. Most options being exhausted, there is no way of coming back. And yet, there is no incentive to shut down: after all, if there is a structure in place to engage with funders, then many non-profit actors will find themselves unwittingly giving lip service to a mission that can’t be executed on. They might also still be doing some good, but not nearly at the level they should be able to. And so the non-profit entity persists in a diminished form – perhaps trapping skilled non-profit workers who care about the mission or are bound to the organization along with it.
Technology nonprofits are uniquely susceptible to this because of the structural arc of a tech product’s development. Early prototyping and even an alpha product development might be quick and feel incredibly promising, but then the hard work starts. Validating with users and stakeholders, getting things wrong, and so on. The hard work is then managing technical debt, setting product priorities, experimenting with business models, and fundamentally getting things wrong so you can surface a better way forward.
Unfortunately, as the tech nonprofit figures this out, the zombies are closing in.
A Zombie for Every Season
Out here in the wasteland, there’s all sorts of zombies you’ll encounter. There’s a lesson to be learned from each, with trucks and clues that point to your own survival.
Wrong Place Zombie
Right Team, Wrong Time
First, they run the risk of being bitten by the Right Team Wrong Time Zombie. This is a nasty fellow that sneaks up on you, perhaps lying dormant in the abandoned gas station you were sure was safe. Having the right team at the wrong time is heartbreaking, because you are working on something great together, but perhaps the skills don’t quite align. Perhaps your team is incredible at early research, problem definition, design, and prototyping, but isn’t any good at the long-term maintenance and architecture of the platform (Disclosure: your humble author is one of these early types). This means that while your team is great in the early days of the apocalypse, they might also be the first to resort to cannibalism or going AWOL. Instead, you want the right combination of people at the right time, and flexible ways to onboard and offboard new members (including yourself, if perhaps the organization needs a new lead for a different phase of its life). Remember, a founder is not always the best CEO.
Long Jump Zombie
Premature depleted runway
Tragically, this particular entity was zombified when it attempted to make a cinematic leap to safety, and didn't quite make it. Crumpled and broken, it nonetheless scoots along waiting for survivors who spent too much time looking ahead, and not enough time checking the ground and resources they have right now. Unfortunately, falling short on your runway is one of the easiest ways to get zombified in these trying times, partially because the transitions from a terminated runway to undead shambling is so natural. Sometimes so much so that you barely notice, as you and your founders don’t take pay, you let staff go, and you insist that everything is okay. Always take time to look before you leap.
Empty Backpack Zombie
And sometimes it simply wasn’t meant to be. You might have a great idea for realizing social impact, but you can’t get the funding, or you can’t hire the right skillset, or maybe you just didn’t realize that launching a software startup with a social mission involves more than packing a lunch and a sleeping bag.
The empty backpack is, to me, the least excusable of the undead fates. The decision to start something should be taken with EXTREME care, especially because you’re going to be working on that thing for months and years of your life. If that time isn’t worth building a system of support around, then perhaps it really wasn’t meant to be. Learn what you need to succeed, and pack appropriately. It might not be as much as you fear, but it is likely more than you have right now.
Gone Glamping Zombie
Over resourced, under skilled/architectured
The Gone Glamping zombie is infuriating, but sometimes inevitable. Being over resourced can often be worse than being under resourced. There is an instinct to go big, to push too fast and too aggressively, without considering a more risk-responsible plan. So instead of setting up your walled refuge and living your best post-apocalyptic self, spending lavishly on growth strategies and exploratory projects, perhaps it’s worth thinking about what it is you’re trying to accomplish here. Unfortunately, this ex-Glamper who is currently shambling towards the fjords was weighted down by their resources, and is now merely a threat to others: unable to accomplish its own survival but preventing others from accessing the lavish resources it once so hubristically collected. If investors and grant making orgs were once burned by this undead fool, I’m sorry. But you can do a lot with a little, just make sure you don’t get bitten.
For each of these zombies, they were once a team working towards the same thing you are: a sustaining technology venture/nonprofit that was trying to do good in the world. It might be easy to dehumanize their work and sacrifice by looking at what they’ve become, but as we trudge on and survive, we need to remember to be thankful for what they once contributed.
Surviving in the nonprofit wasteland isn’t easy. Resources are constrained, wealth holders have heard it all before, and on any given day it is easy to lose hope. But the work done in the nonprofit sector is worthwhile, even vital. Even when the reward is just scraping by day-to-day, perhaps it is worth it when you find that person in need, and you have all that you need to help them.