Healthy Tensions: Perspectives on National Nonprofits With Local Chapters

  • Published May 22, 2021
  • / By Kate Harris

There are numerous examples in the nonprofit sector of federated or distributed models. Sometimes, despite a shared mission, the relationship between local and national is often not as productive as it might be. Each nonprofit organization is unique – from its bylaws and founding documents to the culture that flows from the top and permeates everything in between. Understanding the history of how your organization came to be, the power dynamics and incentives that are baked into your governance structure, and how all of this impacts mission delivery are a good starting point.

The hard truth for these complex organizations is that this tension will never go away but we believe you can work to ensure that the local-national dynamic shows up as a healthy tension instead of something getting in the way. Whether it is fear, competitive culture, an imbalance of power, or simply inertia holding you back – consider the old adage: before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes.

The next step is to remind yourself that you share a mission. Your goals might be unique (and so are your challenges) but it is easy to forget that what makes you colleagues is your shared commitment to the same mission. If you’re not on the same page there, the rest can wait.

At Marts & Lundy, we see this tension in nearly every sector in which we consult:

  • In higher education, individual schools and colleges within the university as well as ancillary entities such as alumni associations, fraternities and sororities to name a few, often express concern over “competing” with the university at large for donors’ attention and dollars.
  • In healthcare, individual research or specialty units might get the lion’s share of philanthropic support in part because they simply impact more people – think heart disease and cancer compared with rare illnesses or conditions. This can be further complicated by valuable partnerships as in the case of academic medical centers who share a number of relationships with their university partners.
  • Many social service organizations are set up with local chapters or regional offices that help further their missions but can cause tension among local development staff who express fear that “national” will take away the precious few donors in their geographic territory. Those local program staff are valued for the work they do but national staff can feel that the local development function often leaves something to be desired.
  • In aging services, multi-site senior living organizations want fundraising materials to reflect their individual communities and shy away from funds they think go to “headquarters” or “corporate” centralized offices. Those local retirement communities also have unique needs from one another and want to set their own priorities.

Tensions often arise between local and national entities of the same organization pursuing the same mission because, well, resources are scarce. There is also an implied pecking order that exacerbates power dynamics, especially where money is concerned. Each party wants to feel valued for what they bring to the table and have some agency over their work. Local organization’s fears that major donors who elevate themselves to a certain gift level will be scooped up by the more sophisticated gift officers at the national or system-wide level, are not entirely unfounded. National organization’s frustrations with noncompliance, information hoarding, and system inequity are real and understandable.

Do either of the following situations feel familiar to you?

Development staff on your national team are frustrated by a high-net-worth donor who wants every dollar of their gift to go to one single chapter. If they would only give their money to the national organization, you could distribute it where it’s needed most. You worry other chapters will find out and be jealous or ask you for more money. You just want to serve each community fairly.

As the director of your local chapter, you’re spinning plates like mad to stay on top of every little thing and now the national team wants a list of your top donors. You’ve known some of these people for decades – what if a donor finds outreach from national staff off-putting and it threatens the relationship? What are they going to do with this list anyway? You can’t risk losing your most important donors – you only have so many.

How can we help ease the tension between local and national? First, let’s look at this from both perspectives – here are some things we hear from local and national teams. (Note: All of these traits can be real or perceived – even those that are merely perceived are no less damaging to productive and collegial relationships):

Often less resourced with a scarcity mindset (i.e., lower compensation levels)Often more resourced, but still with a scarcity mindset
Less power and access to influencers/decision makersHave influence and/or easy access to decision makers
Hardworking but feeling powerlessHardworking but feeling overwhelmed
More visible on the ground but limited to your local networkKnown outside of individual communities with a national network
Doesn’t get enough resources from nationalDoesn’t get enough stories of impact or information from local
Has an easy time describing its value and impact in its own way, which may not always jibe with national messagingMore administrative and not as “close to the work,” so struggles to articulate its unique value add
Attractive to (sometimes) lower dollar donors who want to impact their local community and give proportional to your budget, not theirs (i.e., “My money goes further here, and I can see its impact.”)Attractive to wealthy donors who travel often or have multiple homes and want to leverage their wealth for bigger impact (i.e., “National is worthy of the amounts of money I’m able to give.”)
Feels like they do all the work and get none of the creditFeels like they do all the work and get none of the credit
These are obviously generalizations – every organization is unique! The last bullet is not a typo.
  • Listen to your donors: The simplest way to figure out if someone should be in a national or local pool of prospective donors is to ask them. In most cases, donors need to learn more about your organization to make an informed decision, but whether the relationship is managed by local or national (or sometimes both!) depends on the interests and aspirations of that individual donor. It still sometimes seems radical, even among experienced development professionals, to simply ask a donor where they feel they belong. The trick then is to believe them and cultivate them accordingly.
  • Share systems and technology: Technology plays a major role in information sharing these days. National organizations often have better access to technology than their smaller partners or chapters. Consider how everyone in your organization will use or access your database, for example. What permissions are in place for sharing information and who “owns” which relationships? How does information flow between local and national – and who bears the burden for making that happen?
  • Play fair: Talk about the ways in which your internal systems, governance structure, and founding principles might be beneficial for program delivery but detrimental to fundraising, or vice versa. Successful organizations lean into their values, centering not only what they do but how they do it around the people most impacted. Do you readily share lists of volunteers but not donors? How transparent are you about how money flows between national and local chapters? Who decides when chapters are “taxed” by national or how much national allocates to each chapter?
  • Examine policies and procedures from both perspectives: Once you have come to a shared understanding of how donor relationships will be managed within your organization, documenting that in writing can help to further solidify those good intentions. Are your policies set up to incentivize collaboration or competition? Where can you make adjustments to ensure that the staff most impacted by a certain policy decision have a chance to weigh in? 
  • Build trust: At Marts & Lundy, we have worked with hundreds of nonprofit organizations for the better part of the last century and found that there is rarely a problem within an organization that does not in some way lead back to trust. Trust in leadership, trust in each other – it takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair. Examine where a lack of trust, information hoarding, competitive mindsets, or a culture of fear and scarcity might be creeping into a cause you all really care about.

Whether you are part of the national or local team, remember that you each play a different role in the orchestra. You’ll never get Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 right if you don’t play your instrument at the same tempo as your fellow musicians. Starting from a place of mutual respect and centering everything you do around the people most impacted by your mission can help everyone hit the right notes.