14 things I would tell my younger self if I could go back in time

[Image description: An adorable grey-and-white-striped kitten with huge dark eyes, their head resting on someone’s hand, looking to the left. This is a cute little kitten. They look happy. Image by Manuel Rheinschmidt on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, happy December. I do a lot of speaking, and a question I get asked often is “If you could go back in time to earlier in your career, what would you tell your younger self?” This is when you know that you are getting old, when people ask you this question. It is a badge of hard-earned wisdom. So, here, in no particular order, are a few things I would tell myself, gathered from experience and failures in the field, and from working with much smarter people: 

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How “strategic philanthropy” has harmed our sector, and why it refuses to die

[Image description: A grey-and-black striped cat, sitting behind a chess board, set with wooden chess pieces, glaring at the camera. The cat looks kind of menacing. Or is that just me? Image by RickJbrown on Pixabay]

Remember that couple that did a gender reveal party earlier this year and ended up starting a wildfire that lasted two months and burned down 22,000 acres? Gender reveals are ridiculous, corny, and harmful. I don’t think aliens are going to give us advanced technology as long as we keep doing inane things like this.

But what does this have to do with anything? We’ll get there. A long time ago, before Omicron, before Delta, before the original variant, I met with a foundation program officer for coffee. “We’re in a process to figure out our strategic funding priorities this year,” they said, “what are your thoughts on this?” I took a long sip of my hot cocoa, trying to figure out how to sound diplomatic. But I have no poker face and probably looked like this cat.

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14 things in our sector I’m thankful for

[Image description: A sunflower, facing left, with a blurred background that includes a spot of light that could possibly be the sun. Image by Gary Yost on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, it’s Thanksgiving this week. I know this holiday is fraught for many people, especially Native colleagues, due to the legacy of colonization and stolen Indigenous land. And now, with this Rittenhouse verdict, I don’t even know what to say. I don’t have the energy right now to think about it without spiraling into despair.

There are so many ways the world has been shitty, and these last few years have been some of the shittiest ever. And our sector sometimes helps to maintain this awfulness through its archaic, inequitable practices, which I and others frequently call out.

However, there are also wonderful things happening, big and small, and amazing folks working to make our world better, and we should acknowledge this. It is so easy to see how messed up everything is, that we forget that there is also really great stuff happening. I am particularly prone to this lately, I’ve realized. So here are some things in our sector that I am grateful for, in no order of importance, and definitely not comprehensive:

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Outsider Efficacy Bias: What it is and how it affects our work

[Image description: Three light brown bunnies, standing on a windowsill, looking out. They’re very fluffy. Image by onkelramirez1 on Pixabay]

I always joke that when I start writing and producing Nonprofit The Musical, one of the characters would be a consulting robot. It’s a robot that is a consultant, and it repeats exactly what the staff says, but the board actually listens to it! If you’re a consultant, you might be offended by that joke. But let’s be honest, this is one of the reasons we hire consultants, and effective consultants recognize that this is a necessary role they play.

This is because we have a rampant belief in our sector that people from outside our organization/community/geographic area are somehow more knowledgeable and effective than the people in it. I am calling it the Outsider Efficacy Bias (OEB), unless there’s a better name for it. Here are some ways it manifests:

  • Board members insisting on hiring an external candidate to be the ED instead of promoting a qualified person within the organization
  • EDs/CEOs doing the same thing, hiring a staff from outside, often neglecting internal candidates
  • Foundations hiring people from academia or the corporate world, who have no experience in nonprofit, to be the CEO
  • Organizations hiring consultants from outside the geographic area instead of contracting with local consultants who live and work there
  • Organizations hiring local consultants instead of just listening to their staff
  • Conferences booking national and international speakers instead of working with local speakers
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charity:water and other mega-charities, we need to talk about your harmful, archaic views on overhead

[Image description: A greyish-brownish squirrel, standing on a stump, looking directly at the camera, their hands touching and resting on their chest. This squirrel is not happy about the messaging around overhead. Image by Yannick Menard on Unsplash]

Every year at about this time, as people become more inclined to donate to charity for the holidays, memes start floating around regarding nonprofit overhead rates. “Don’t give to these orgs! Only 4 cents of every dollar you donate go to helping people! The other 96 cents go to mansions and truffles for their well-paid executives!” Which is quite ridiculous; most nonprofit executives only have at most two mansions, and consume no more than 100 grams of Périgord black truffles each week. Sadly, the public is pretty clueless regarding our work and are quick to latch on to nonsense regarding overhead. I wrote about it here in How to deal with uninformed nonprofit-watchdogs around the holidays.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest drivers of the narrative around overhead being no-good-very-bad are nonprofits themselves. Specifically, large international organizations with significant brand recognition. They usually do vital, life-saving and life-changing work, so I am not here to question their programs and services. However, in their quest to raise funds, they continue to use archaic messaging around overhead that are toxic for the entire sector. Here are a few examples:

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