Change of Heart?

ElaineGantzWright’s blog is for people interested in using the Web and online marketing to drive social change. Elaine covers social media for nonprofits, philanthropy trends, online giving, cause marketing, random life musings, and more. Find out more at SocialFuse.

“It is not enough to stay busy. So, too, are the ants. The question is what you are busy about.” Henry David Thoreau

heartimageSeth Godin has ignited an Internet firestorm with his recent blog post condemning nonprofits for their aversion to change and their resistance to embracing social media in a passionate way. I think he has hit a nerve, but I suspect the emotional reaction is indicative of a much deeper, lurking tension at the very heart of the public sector.

As I wrote on this blog last week, social media is more a functional change in the way we live – as opposed to just the newest bright, shiny gadget. Clay Shirky calls it “the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.” Seth, this is a vast, ubiquitous, socio-cultural revolution. Perhaps, that explains why nonprofit and for-profit enterprises, alike, are a little reticent about just “showing up” haphazardly on Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you may recall, Seth laments, “Where are the big charities, the urgent charities, the famous charities that face such timely needs and are in a hurry to make change? Very few of them have bothered to show up in a big way.” I think it’s more than “showing up.” Although, one of my favorite quotes is Woody Allen’s, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” I guess it’s complicated, as they say on Facebook. Perhaps we all need to just start swimming and learn to stay afloat as we go. Regardless, I think communicators have a daunting task ahead—no matter where they play—figuring out how to harness the enormous power within some sort of workable plan.

Still, I have to admit that on some level, Seth’s righteous indignation about an entire sector defining itself by “what it is not” (i.e. nonprofit) resonated strongly with me. As a wordsmith and amateur psychologist, I think this negative identity creates an inherent tension or incongruity of purpose. Perhaps even a self-esteem problem?

I was reminded of a brilliant closing session speaker I saw at last year’s Governor’s Conference for nonprofits presented by Austin’s One Star Foundation last year. The dynamic and innovative Valerie Keller, CEO of the Outreach Center in Lafayette, LA, spoke to this group of passionate Texas nonprofit leaders about this very issue. Her fervor took on the urgency of a battle cry—as she chided the well-meaning, often overly self-effacing social sector for settling for this dismissive “non” moniker. This concept also aligns with what I discussed last week when I mused about the emerging imperative for the nonprofit sector to rethink the ways it does business and functions at a core level.

In Valerie’s case, she definitely walks her talk. She has successfully reenergized a social service agency in a struggling region of Louisiana through creative public/private entrepreneurial partnerships and a social enterprise model. Social enterprise—now, that’s a term that jazzes me.

uncharitableAnother thought-leader in this area is Dan Pallotta, author of Uncharitable. Dan harshly critiques the underlying value system that confines our charities and other nonprofit organizations. Pallotta sheds light on the frugal, almost prudish constraints the public expects from nonprofits—everything from banning paid advertising, to perpetuating substandard wages for nonprofit employees. He examines the public’s unconscious expectation that nonprofits behave differently from for-profits and points the finger at Americans’ Puritan heritage of self-denial and frugality. That’s an interesting notion that may not tell the whole story—but may contribute to the perception.

We say, “Grow, grow, and do more . . . but, uh, don’t spend money!” On some level, we seem to want the nonprofit sector to shun the very strategies and tactics that drive the business sector. There’s the rub—a fundamental disconnect. Further, Pallotta argues that the public tends to fixate too tenaciously on fundraising ratios and low overhead costs as the only relevant success measures. These arbitrary efficiency calculations do not always translate into results—or impact, for that matter. Instead, he calls for donors to focus on this:

“What has the organization achieved, and what can it achieve with my donation?”

Pallotta challenges us to speak up on behalf of nonprofits and actively educate donors on the necessity of cost-effective administrative expenses and business techniques that can build the best launching pads for nonprofits and—the change they seek to create.

What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Change of Heart?

  1. Great blog! I think non-profits are hamstrung and limited by the general public opinion and perception that they should operate by anything other than capitalistic strategies and techniques. The term non-profit is actually a misnomer and there needs to be a concerted effort to re-educate both the general public and those who work in the non-profit sector to change the current mentality.


    1. Thanks for the kind words, Mark. I agree with what you say about nonprofits being hamstrung. The term “nonprofit” conveys a perception of scarcity — somehow implying that they cannot manifest abundance. You are correct that we need to address this mentality — from the inside out. Keep up the good work!

  2. I work with only non-profits and I have to say that I am witnessing first-hand the largest cultural shift and organizational changes that I’ve seen in my 15 years in working with NFPs/associations. Social networking is forcing the breakdown of departmental walls and more importantly, the breakdown of the “us vs. them” mentality that is often seen between organization vs. constituency, board vs. staff, volunteers vs. staff. It is an interesting time, but I also will comment that Pallotta’s underlying premise is that organizations are ready to change and always trying to innovate, but are constrained by public mores of what is appropriate business practice for a NFP. I challenge this–I more often than not, find that the members/donors are years ahead of organizational staff and it is the organizational staff that is the culprit of stopping change. Staff/executive leadership are so risk-averse as to not want to dip a toe in the water until 1400 other bathers that are just like them have already come back from a swim.

    There’s so many opportunities to innovate with social networking, but whether NFP or for-profit—it only works if the organization embraces the new way of doing business: namely, that there is now a 2-way dialogue and the organization takes on a facilitation role instead of a dictatorial one.

  3. Yes! There is much more power in defining what you want or are – rather than what you don’t want or are not.

    There are a lot of people attempting to “rename” or “relabel” nonprofits. Some people are using the term community benefit organization. We often use the term organization in the social sector, rather than nonprofit. Although that isn’t really a powerful description of what they are. A colleague came up with “all profit” – an organization that seeks all to benefit and profit.

    This is a very important issue and it is not just semantics. And it’s not just the term nonprofit or the social sector. In the Soul of Money, Lynne Twist talks about the dominant paradigm of scarcity which affects all sectors. And in addition, there are some unique constraints in the social sector which are described in your post.

    We use strengths based approaches to change – which focus attention and energy on identifying and building on what is working — to create what you want to see. The predominant deficit view often defines goals as reduced turnover rather than increased retention, tobacco control rather than increased health etc. And every time the focus is defined or shifted to making bad things less bad, there is a missed opportunity to create what you most want to see. These are actually two separate processes that Bruce Elkin writes about beautifully.

    There is starting to be a recognition that impact is not a result of low administrative costs, and I thought that was one of the most powerful findings in Forces For Good – that the highest impact “nonprofits” did not score well on traditional metrics that rated low overhead etc as high.

    Great blog post and discussion.

  4. It is so exciting to see so much convergence in the various discussions about this idea of rethinking the assumptions and patterns of ‘nonprofit’ leadership–I found that my students reacted particularly strongly to this discussion, too. I appreciate the post and also Cassandra’s comments, especially the two additional resources as I continue my thinking about what it means to choose new barometers by which to define ourselves as a sector (indeed, perhaps the whole idea of being a sector apart is part of the problem!)

  5. In terms of “Uncharitable,” if education is needed we have a long way to go:

    According to Senetor Grassley, we are full of fraud and waste. Did you see the urgent need to reform the nonprofit sector that he is adding to the Healthcare Reform bill?

    If we want to change as a sector it will have to be truly a sector wide. It has various aspects. One main amendment changes a nonprofits ability to justify salaries that differ from nonprofits of the same type.

    The “rebuttle presumption” is being removed. Nonprofits will have to file a “a summary of the comparable information used to determine an executive’s compensation.”

    Chronical of Philanthropy covered it:

    There are other parts of the amendment that perhaps may be a response to Acorn. I can see their concern with that. But I wish this was not thrown in with healthcare and nonprofits make this a meaningful process.

    Definitions are going to be required as well as governance reports- all the way down to a “conflict of interest statement”.

    1. What a meaty and informative discussion! Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses and commentary. What an amazing group of readers . . . indeed! Thank you so much for your participation. Elaine

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