The nonprofit rut, and what we can do about it

[Image description: Four adorable grey and white kittens, sitting in a tiny four-wheeled wagon with a long pull stick. Image by u_uf78c121 on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, I am writing from Nairobi Kenya, where I am listening to local leaders and engaging in reflections about global aid and the many challenges around it. It has been nice to physically avoid the dumpster fire that is much of US politics, especially over the past few months as most of our politicians have been offering their full-throated support of Israel’s gen0cide of Palestinians. I’ve also been disappointed with our sector, where, with a few courageous exceptions, we’ve mostly been silent as Israel massacres thousands of children and civilians using our tax dollars.

To be honest, I think I’ve reached a point now where I am starting to lose faith in our unicorn magic, and I’m more bitter and jaded and have been randomly mumbling under my breath about the hopelessness and futility of it all. I’ve become an old man yelling at clouds. Is our sector effective? Surely, with so many kind, compassionate, justice-minded individuals in the trenches, we must be. Everywhere there are signs of good, vital work being done.

So why does it always still feel so Sisyphean? Why do we keep having the same conversations, the same challenges, the same grumblings when we get together and can speak our minds freely?

  • “My organization still does poverty tours where we bring wealthy donors to gawk at our clients”
  • “Our food pantry is celebrating our 50th anniversary, but I really wish we’d just solve poverty and go out of business already”
  • “Foreign NGOs have been causing destruction to local communities by forcing their agendas while ignoring the political contexts that allow poverty and injustice to proliferate in the first place”
  • “This asshole foundation requires a 12-page narrative and 8 attachments including a bespoke budget (in Word!) for a one-year $10,000 grant that can’t be spent on staff wages!”

These are the same complaints grumblings I heard two decades ago. I’m sure those who have even more experience have heard them for longer. At what point are we just all sick of all of this? At what point does the dam finally break and we ride at dawn or whatever? I would like to ride at dawn!

I see the students forming encampments to protest gen0cide and demand their universities divest from supporting Israel, and it brings me hope. These protests are spreading all over the world. Our sector should be taking cues from these courageous actions.

Instead, we’re in a rut. Our sector is in a rut. A quick search online reveals that a rut is “a long, deep track made by the repeated passage of the wheels of vehicles” and “a habit or pattern of behaviour that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.”

That feels like where we are, and where we have been. The wagon we’re on has been going back and forth on the same road so frequently that it’s made some deep grooves and the wheels are kind of stuck there on that track, and now it’s extremely hard to change direction. We’re so used to the same strategies, the same behaviors, the same challenges, the same thinking, the same solutions.

None of this discounts the fact that we have brilliant people in our sector, and that there’s tons of creative, amazing things being done. But the sector itself—with its wealth-based power dynamics that allow some of the richest but least knowledgeable people on the planet to have the most influence over every aspect of the work—can stymy a lot of radical thinking and actions.

A while ago, I met Hildy Gottlieb, a brilliant thinker, amazing writer and speaker, and generally awesome human being, and we’ve become friends. During one of our conversations, Hildy brought up the incremental thinking that becomes ingrained in many of us as we enter this field. I’m paraphrasing Hildy’s words a bit here:

“Nonprofits and funders are conditioned to think that success is doing 10% better year over year. If this year our budget is $500,000, then next year, we’re successful if we increase it to $550,000. If this year we’re serving 100 families, then next year, we’re on the right track if we serve 110 families, and the following year 121 families, etc. That’s incremental. We should think of the kind of future we want to create, and then work backwards. If we want to eradicate hunger in ten years and then go out of business, for example, then we need to think about what that will take and act on it, and maybe that means next year we increase our budget ten-fold, or we serve 100 families this year but aim to serve 800 families next year and significantly ramp up our policy and advocacy work.”

That has always stuck with me. And now I see it—this incremental thinking—everywhere. It is subtle and pernicious. And conditioned in all of us. It’s probably one of the biggest contributors to this rut I feel we’re in.

Hildy’s work and the organization she founded, Creating the Future, whose board I’m on, has been fighting this and similar lines of thought. It’s been influencing people’s thinking across the sector, including my own. And as I’ve become pessimistic and curmudgeonly, I’ve asked Hildy to be in conversation with me on a webinar so that we can tackle some of these questions that I know many of us have been pondering.

So, on May 23rd at 10am Pacific, please join Hildy and me on a free webinar as we discuss what she calls “Catalytic Thinking,” which is the radical opposite of the incremental thinking that has been ingrained in many of us. We will discuss what Catalytic Thinking is, how we can engage with it, and what’s been preventing us from using it more often. We will delve into how Catalytic Thinking and other lines of thoughts can break us out of this rut. We’ll touch on the differences in the cognitive and behavioral patterns of right-wing and progressive movements.

It’ll be fun, or at least thought-provoking. Please register here. Auto-captions will be available.

Despite my current jadedness and cynicism, I still do believe in our sector and the people in it. As frustrated as I am of late, I continue to believe in our potential to actualize the kind or world we know is possible. Ruts are not permanent. It may take a little bit of time and energy to get the wagon wheels to divert from the well-worn grooves, but it’s possible. Let’s create the future we want. See you on May 23rd.