Scarcity Mentality and the Problem with Being a Nickel Organization

Scarcity Mentality and the Problem with Being a Nickel Organization


11 July 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Step outside of your organizational role and pretend, for a moment, that you are a donor. You care about the land trust and you care about the mission of conservation. You also care about other things – like health care, homelessness, and libraries. You have money, but it’s not unlimited.

Now with that frame of mind, “visit” the land trust. Walk through the offices. Scan through the pages of the website. Search for the land trust on YouTube and Facebook. Gather the printed materials and look at them all together on a table. Also visit the preserves – walk the trails and read the signs.

What story does this journey tell you about the organization?

Try to be honest and unbiased. Is this an organization that is successful? Or is this an organization that is barely hanging on?

Is this an organization that is directed, with its sh** together? Or does it look chaotic and happenstance?

Based ONLY on what you can see, is this an organization you would feel comfortable investing in at a much larger level? Say you’re a $1,000 donor now. Based ONLY on what you can see, would you be comfortable making a $25,000 investment?


I read a book years ago by Jan Carlzon called Moments of Truth. Mr. Carlzon took a failing SAS airline and turned it around in the 1980s, and his story is still acknowledged as one of the great business success stories.

One of the points Mr. Carlzon makes is that we are always evaluating our experience and drawing conclusions – even unfair conclusions – based on that experience. And everyone else is doing the same thing. If the airplane seats are tattered and stained, we draw conclusions about how well the engines are maintained and even about how safe the airline is. Worse, we carry that feeling for years afterward, and make decisions based on that “feeling.”

Years later, Maya Angelou said much the same thing: “People will never forget how you made them feel.”


Many land trusts are operating on shoestring budgets. And they have been for years and years. Some are doing so proudly, even to the point of bragging about how little they spend on “overhead.”

But what does a visitor take away as an impression or feeling? What do they conclude about how professional the organization is? How good it is at negotiating deals? Land Stewardship? Education?

How ready will they be to make a much larger investment?


Some of our interest in presenting an organization that is “doing a lot with very little,” is an assumption about donors and what they will value. Because that’s what WE value.

If donors know we squeeze every nickel, they will give us more nickels. And it seems to work – they keep giving us nickels. But at the same time, they are also giving other organizations dollars and tens and twenties.

Our scarcity mentality has perpetuated an image of a nickel organization, and that’s the way our donors have come to see us.

In other words, they are giving us nickels, because that’s all we are projecting we need.


Another story from the 1980s was that of a social experiment where a teacher was given false information about the IQ and abilities of her classroom students. The new information changed her expectations of their classroom performance. It also changed how she treated them.

Several years ago Karen Kendrick wrote a post on the Passionate Giving blog that featured this story.

The result was that the students who the teacher believed had higher IQs and abilities performed far higher than in the past and above other more advanced students. What captures my heart about this story is that for so many kids, the converse is their reality. There are low expectations that play out in their lives in many subtle, and not so subtle, ways. What we believe is true, what we believe is possible – this is what we create in our reality with others. And this is also what we do with our donors.


What would happen if we started having higher expectations of our donors? What would happen if we made assumptions that our donors would be generous? That they share our values of responsible land conservation and stewardship?

Versus valuing being thrifty?

What would happen if we made assumptions that they cared that the organization had the wherewithal to survive in perpetuity? And treated them that way?

What if we started projecting an image of success?


What if we just painted the office?



Cheers, and have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by NoName_13 courtesy pixabay



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  • David Brant
    Posted at 15:56h, 11 July

    A great post, David. Very true and we have rounded the bend of scarcity and not being penny wise and pound foolish. This has made all the difference in our results and in how we are perceived.

  • Lori O
    Posted at 14:06h, 11 July

    Excellent post and so very true!