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What is a poverty mentality or poverty mindset?

It is the culture of an organization perpetuated by the board and the leadership. It is the half empty rather than the half full outlook on life. It is, “We don’t have the money, we’ll never have the money, so get used to it,” attitude.

Please don’t think I’m an eternal optimist and believe in miracles. I’m not, but I do believe it’s better to try than to not try. I believe we must ask for help rather than believe no one cares.

The size of an organization does not necessarily reflect its culture. A multi-million-dollar nonprofit can be stuck in a poverty mentality as easily as a small one. Having a poverty mindset keeps an organization and its leadership stuck in the present with no hope for the future. It’s important to have a balanced point of view, both optimistic and pessimistic, but both must have the best interest of the organization and its clients in mind.

An optimistic outlook is stronger when it’s grounded in a solid budget with realistic revenue projections and program expenses. A budget projects the future. A stretch goal gives your supporters something to strive toward.

How does one lift the morose veil of poverty mentality? It’s not easy. It’s ingrained in the experience and expectations of those who are leading the organization. It takes someone stepping forward, out of the safety of the board as a whole or staff, who says, “We need a change.” It also takes a willingness of those invested in the security of, “We can’t do any better, why try,” to step out of their comfort zone. This can be terrifying. Not trying means not failing, and no one wants to fail, especially when others depend upon them.

This huge change usually needs help from the outside, someone who’s not invested in the organization. There are change-agent consultants who work with the board and leadership to shift ways of thinking and attitudes. The staff and other volunteers will also need help adjusting to a new way of thinking.

We are on the cusp of a new, post-Covid world. This is not the time to think we can go back to the old ways. This is the time to think boldly and creatively. Talk with your donors, your board, staff, and volunteers. Listen for a different perspective on how we can best bring together all the necessary resources to serve the vulnerable people in our communities.


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