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
Seth 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.
Another 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?