9 annoying nonprofit trends that need to die


light-bulb-503881_640pdHi everyone, I am heading to Vietnam this week for a much-needed vacation. I’ll still be writing each Monday, but can’t guarantee the quality of the blog posts, since I’ll be stuffing my face with street food and coconut juice. But, before I go, let’s address some irritating trends that have surfaced in our sector. Below are a few that the NWB Facebook community came up with. See if you agree, and for the love of hummus, if you are guilty of any of them, cut it out right now.

Ignite-style presentations: “Ignite” involves a five-minute Powerpoint presentation with 20 slides, where the slides advance themselves every 15 seconds. It cuts off long-winded people, and it’s kind of fun to see how speakers match up their speech with the slides. When done right, and used mostly for humorous and easy-to-understand stuff, it can be great. But I’ve seen it too often used for novelty’s sake to explain difficult nonprofit concepts or missions, in which case it becomes “presentation by karaoke,” underestimates the intelligence of the audience, wastes endless hours of speakers’ time in preparation, and makes me want to punch the event organizer in the neck. I once attended an event feature five of these short presentations. People had a great time—“Ooh, that lightbulb graphic appeared JUST when she said ‘I had an idea!’ That’s so, like, awesome!”—but by the end of the night, no one in the audience remembered anything the speakers said.

Corporate one-day volunteer or teambuilding projects. This is when a business sends like a bazillion workers to a nonprofit for a day to help it paint walls or make sandwiches or read to kids or darn socks for veterans or whatever. Again, when done right, it can be a great partnership. And a great photo-op for everyone. But usually the business people don’t realize how much time it costs us nonprofit to coordinate this. Often, the business folks leave feeling like heroes, and we end up cleaning up the mess and then we never see them again. Says one of my colleague, “Your corporate image does not trump our need to get tasks done. Several corporate volunteer projects have been horrible because the employees treat it like a day off and goof off/leave early/drink at lunch.” Hey corporations, if you want to help, volunteer throughout the year with “unsexy” stuff like fundraising and data entry.

Popularity contest “grants”: Really, corporations, you’re going to award money to the organizations that get the most “likes” or votes? Yup, it’s a brilliant marketing technique: The grantor “helps” the community, while getting lots and lots of publicity with very little effort. How about you actually do the right thing by having an equitable selection process and stop making us nonprofits shill for you? We have stuff to do. This reminds me of a rapper who promised to donate a buck to starving kids for each “like” his Facebook page receives. Ew! Using hungry kids to boost your image is despicable, dude. Let’s agree to not participate in these types of schemes.

Crowdfunding: Look, I’m not against novel ways of diversifying our revenue sources. But crowdfunding is getting touted as some sort of miracle elixir that will solvecrystal ball pd all our fiscal ailments. It’s not. It only works for certain types of organizations and missions and projects. But because it’s so shiny, it’s “blah blah crowdfunding this” and “blah blah crowdfunding that” and “my cousin was an ED of an org that was in trouble, and they tried crowdsourcing, and within three days, they raised 5 billion, and also her cholesterol level went down and her acne cleared up!” as if it were so easy. We all know effective fundraising takes time and resource and at least one reputable psychic, so crowdfunding is just one more tool in our toolbox, not some sort of panacea. (All that said, I’ll eventually be asking for crowdfunding donations when I launch my “Nonprofit: The Musical” project).

Hiring outside consultants and consulting firms instead of locals: For some reason, we seem to have this “outsider efficacy bias,” where people from outside our organization, or city, or state, are more intelligent than the people inside. This is why “Nonprofit: The Musical” will have, as one of its characters, a consultant robot, whose only job is to repeat exactly what an internal staff or board member says; the difference is that the robot actually gets listened to. This is not a dis on consultants, since I do some consulting and thus technically am one. But it does get annoying, frequently insulting, and oftentimes ineffective. Think of local consultants before you start outsourcing. Chances are, they know the context and key players way better and can provide more effective solutions.

The obsession with millennials: All right, enough with the articles, blog posts, webinars, Youtube videos, tweets, infographics, and interpretive dances about millennials. Not that I have anything against our bright-eyed, optimistic, smart, technology-focused colleagues who love a good hot yoga session and taking pictures of their meals, but enough is enough. There are other groups we also need to pay attention to. Where are the infographics about the brilliant and talented Gen Xers, whom one of my colleagues calls “History’s latchkey kids”? (You can’t have “generous and sexy” without Gen X) Also, don’t forget the vegan nonprofiteers, who are rapidly growing in number; are our meeting snacks changing to meet their needs?!

Marketing an org or project as “100% volunteer run”: This is very similar to the annoying and harmful habit of saying “100% of your donations go to programming.” We love volunteers, but being proud of something being “100% volunteer-run” is insulting to nonprofit professionals. As a colleague says: “Many orgs start this way but eventually for sustainability, paid staff is needed to scale, strengthen and survive. Even if the org is all-volunteer, tag lines like this devalue the often very underpaid staff that many nonprofits need to get all of their work done. Nonprofit staff deserves to get paid. Their work is plentiful and important.” 

Data, data, blah blah, data: As I explained in “Weaponized data: How the obsession with data has been hurting marginalized communities,” I love data, but the obsession with it is going too far. Data by itself doesn’t accomplish crap. I’ve seen too many funders investing in data and producing shiny reports that get read by no one because you need people to actually use the data, and if you don’t invest in people and organizations, your data is sitting on some shelf collecting dust bunnies, which just sounds cute, but it’s not!

“Innovation”: Can we stop chasing “innovative” solutions? As I mentioned in “The frustration with innovation: Bright Shiny Object Syndrome and its effect on the nonprofit sector,” the obsession with “novel” solutions is like trying the various fad diets as opposed to the boring sensible-diet-and-exercise-routine. Innovation is great, but not when it’s at the cost of tried-and-true. You know what’s an example of something REALLY innovative? The Ford Foundation’s recent shift to giving only general operating grants. Is this new and sexy? No. But will this allow more of Ford Foundation’s grantees to focus on doing a better job? Hell yeah. Am I going to name my next kid “Darren” after the Foundation’s new president? Maybe.

Of course, everything has its place. In the right context, and with moderation, and maybe some tequila, I wouldn’t mind sitting through an Ignite presentation given by an outside consultant regarding quantitative data on innovative crowdfunding through Millennials.

There is a bunch of other trends that get on my nerves—fakequity, for example; and an entire blog post is coming on the challenges with Collective Impact; and another post on stuff that are not trends but rather nonprofit sacred cows that we need to release into the wilderness—but it’s 1am, and I need to sleep. Let me know if you agree or disagree with any of the trends above, and what other trends you see that make you want to break out into an angry ballad if you were in “Nonprofit: The Musical.”

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