The nonprofit sector is not more dysfunctional than any other sector, OK?

[Image description: A red panda peeking over a branch, staring at the camera, looking adorable and slightly annoyed. Image by chacha8080 on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, if you follow my ramblings for the past few years, you know that I point out various flaws in our sector. We have a lot of them, from our ridiculous traditional board structure, to the various time-wasting shenanigans of foundations, to the way we’ve been conditioned to appeal to the ego of rich mostly white donors, to how poorly paid many people are, to our propensity to intellectualize and not take action, to our crappy hiring practices, and to our office equipment that is held together with duct tape and bungee cords. And there’s plenty of other things we need to point out and improve on.

However, although it is not always apparent, I really genuinely love our sector. And I criticize it because I see our potential and I am optimistic that we can change and improve. It’s a lot like visiting your relatives and they just point out your appearance and all the stuff you’re doing wrong, but you know that it’s because they believe in you. When mine are like “You’re getting old, why don’t you find a real job or open a business like your cousins, and also you should try putting this eucalyptus oil on your face for your horrible acne,” I know they say all that stuff because they care.

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Reports of the nonprofit sector’s death are greatly exaggerated

[Image description: A chameleon, lying on a twig, looking rather annoyed. Image by Enrico Corradi on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, before we get started, this year marks the 10th anniversary of when I began writing about our sector. It has been an amazing ten years, and 483 posts, filled with hummus jokes, rants about restricted funding, and vigorous defense of the Oxford Comma. To celebrate this milestone, here are a few things to note:

  • Nonprofit AF the Book: I’m editing a compilation of the top 50 or so posts into a book, tentatively titled “The Nonprofit AF Omnibus: There and Back Again, A Collection of the Top 50 or So Posts, Finally Edited for Grammar and Typos, Volume 1.” Or NAFOTBGCT50OSPFEGTV1 for short. Be on the lookout for it this spring or summer.
  • Short videos and/or sock puppets? I’m exploring doing more content in other formats because writing is my comfort zone, but I want to push myself a bit. And besides, people have different styles of receiving information and learning, so it’ll be nice to have different ways to engage. It’ll be fun. I hope. Please keep jokes like “you have a face for podcasts” to yourself.
  • Phasing out ads: I’m removing most if not all ads from this website over the next few weeks. I’m grateful for the cool partners who have placed ads. But the spirit and purpose of this blog is to share unfiltered thoughts on our sector, and that is sometimes hard to do if the orgs or concepts I need to call out may be buying ads on this site (not that I’ve had to call anyone out or plan to in the near future).
  • Patreon: Without ad revenues, I rely even more on other ways to make a living. I am very appreciative of monthly Patreon contributors. Your support has been really helpful, especially during these past two years. If you find NAF useful, and want it to remain free and open to everyone, become a monthly patron if you aren’t one already and can afford it. You can also do one-time payments. Orgs and foundations, consider it a professional development investment in your team and in the field.

Thank you for reading Nonprofit AF, engaging with the questions posed here, and putting up with my shenanigans these past ten years.

On to this week’s topic. A few days ago I talked to a colleague who played me a clip of a podcast discussing whether nonprofits are becoming obsolete because for-profits are getting increasingly involved with charity-like work. With the rise of social entrepreneurism, B corps, etc., people are asking this question more and more. Some are concerned, and some barely hide the glee in their voice as they envision corporations solving societal issues and putting an end to nonprofits, us goody-two-shoes orgs with our twitchy-eyed staff decked in Ross-Dress-for-Less clothing, constantly having meetings and eating hummus.

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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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We need to rethink the concept of “mission creep”

[Image description: A blue-ringed octopus floating around. They are bright orange with bright blue rings all over. This octopus’s adorableness hides the fact that this species is among the most venomous and deadly of all creatures, containing venom a thousand times more powerful than cyanide, enough for each octopus to kill 26 people within minutes. Not sure how that is relevant to this blog post, but it’s still interesting. Image by pen_ash on Pixabay.]

Hi everyone. Quick reminder before we get started. This Wednesday, August 25th, 11am PT, Community-Centric Fundraising is having a one-year celebration/reflection. I hope to see you there. Meanwhile, if you’ve benefited from the CCF movement or your org has made changes because of it, please share.  

There are only a few things we all agree on in this work. One of those things is that mission creep is no good, very bad. Mission creep is like mixing trash and recycling together. It’s like not tipping a hairstylist or restaurant server. It’s like soaking a cast-iron pan in water overnight. It’s bad.  

The term originated in 1993 and concerned the United Nations’s peacekeeping efforts during the Somali Civil War, and now it’s used a lot in our sector to talk about when organizations start doing things outside their stated mission, which causes organizations to waste resources on stuff they’re not good at, or that another org is already doing more effectively. When orgs don’t stick to their missions, it often leads to confused constituents, annoyed partner orgs, irritated funders, and a less effective field.    

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