Consultants, are you actually making the sector worse? Here are some questions to ask yourselves

[Image description: Three adorable brown-and-grey kittens, in what looks like a white-towel-lined basket, staring at the camera, looking kind of serious with big soulful eyes. This picture has nothing to do with this post. Image by ID 12019 on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. Just a reminder, before we dive into this week’s post, that the pandemic is not over. Some of y’all are acting like it is. Cases are surging. Get your boosters, wear masks, avoid indoor dining when you can, and stop double-dipping when you’re eating with other people lest you want me to smack the chopsticks out of your hand.

A few months ago, a colleague told me that they were writing a grant application. One of the questions was “what is your board’s giving rate? If it’s not 100%, please explain why.” This is a silly and archaic question that all funders need to stop asking. My colleague had written an answer to the effect that her org believed it was inequitable to focus on money as the most prioritized contribution, that they valued time and lived experience, and so they didn’t have 100% board giving nor did they care to measure it, etc. A dose of refreshing honesty so rare in our sector, like decent chairs and retirement savings.

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How do we cope with so much pain and despair?

[Image description: Rows of empty desks in a classroom. Image by Wokandapix on Pixabay]

Last week, I had bought my 9-year-old Viet his first bicycle. He got to choose it and he was very excited about it. It was my fault for leaving it overnight on our porch, where it got stolen. While he was at school, I went around the city to a few different stores, trying to find the exact same bicycle, coordinating with his mom so he wouldn’t know what was going on. We could have just told him the truth—and we will, someday, as an amusing anecdote when he’s older—but knowing our son, he would be worried about his bike, about the world. His excitement would give way to fear and anxiety. We wanted to save from that, to let him be a kid for a bit longer.

I was able to find the same bike, and he never knew what happened, and I left town for a speaking engagement in Park City, Utah. There I learned about the students and teachers who were murdered in Uvalde, Texas. We parents try to protect our kids from the horrors of reality. We replace their stolen bikes and sick goldfish and kiss their foreheads and tell them the world is not a terrible place. And then we send them to school, where they do active shooter drills to learn how to hide and remain quiet if someone comes to gun them down, and we hope they return home safely each day. The unimaginable pain and anguish the Uvalde families must be feeling, their lives forever shattered, knowing their loved ones, their babies, will never come home again.

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

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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

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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

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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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