When my son Elijah was around 3, he was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine™, a “cheeky” steam train engine that gets into a lot of trouble while working with a team of fellow engines and cars with characteristically British names.
Elijah and I read a lot of Thomas books, and we had Thomas the Tank Engine wooden model trains, tracks, towers, switching stations. You name it.
One day, Elijah held up a green coal car and said, “Daddy, Daddy! Where is Henry?”
“Well, I don’t know, but you have his coal tender in your hand. Why don’t you play with that?”
My son replied, “Noooooo…. Daddy, a coal car’s no good without an engine!”
I thought for a second and said, “You’re right! And an engine is no good without a coal car.”
Later that same night, Elijah and I read a Thomas book called “A Crack in the Track,” in which Thomas tries to help a fellow engine who is “feeling under the weather” by taking his passengers to their destination. But a storm dumps heavy rain and hail on the track, breaking it and preventing Thomas from getting to the station. Soon, other trains become backed up behind Thomas and stubbornly refuse to turn around and go to a switching station. All of the trains end up stuck at the obstacle. The book ends with, “Thomas realized that as strong as he is, an engine is only as good as its track.”
I realized Thomas’ scenario could easily describe many nonprofit organizations. A train (organization) is useless without fuel, in this case, coal in the coupled tender car (financial resources and human capital). But neither train nor coal car is any good if the track (strategic plan) is broken or leads in the wrong direction.
In other words, you can raise all the money you want, but without a good engineer (strong leadership), forward momentum, and a clear purpose, the resources are burned up without moving the organization forward.
In my work with nonprofits through the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, we recognized that it was important to not only provide “fuel,” (funding) but also a clear destination and the organizational infrastructure to effectively light the fires and keep them burning.
Some groups were able to easily fill their coffers with their fundraising efforts. But a few of these same organizations didn’t always have strong engineers, a well-oiled engine, or a clear destination. So the foundation’s mentoring program provided training and counsel to the organizations’ leadership to strengthen governance to help them create a strong strategic plan and a well-mapped path.
In my current work with Rainmaker, clients sometimes ask why I am question them about governance, strategic planning, the decision-making process, staff and board relations, and other organizational concerns.
My oft-heard answer is, “If money can fix it, it’s not the problem.”
Their puzzled look is often followed by a request for additional clarification. I remind them that numerous systemic problems remain unresolved despite massive amounts of money and resources.
One can find examples of this in nearly every sector of for-profit business, government, world relief efforts, and certainly in the nonprofit sector. The reason is that a coal car is no good without an engine, and an engine is no good without a coal car. Neither the train nor the cars are any use without a sure track that takes them to their desired destination.
But if all of those things are working effectively in tandem and the organization is on track, it has the momentum of a freight train.
If you don’t believe me, just ask a 3-year-old.