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.
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
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:
Hi everyone, in observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, let’s remember that less than half a percent of total foundation grant dollars go to Native organizations and communities (and I doubt individual donations or government sources are much higher). Foundations reading this, back up your statements of solidary by analyzing how much you are investing in Indigenous-led-and-serving organizations, and increasing the amount. Non-Native orgs, now’s a good time to think of how you can tangibly lift up Native orgs; make introductions to your existing donors and funders, for example. The rest of us, let’s buy from Native businesses, donate to Native-led orgs, subscribe to Native media, and financially support Native individuals. Let’s do all this year-round, not just this week.
This post may ruffle some of you, especially if you’re a fragile white dude, so before I begin, I want to let you know that some of my best friends are white dudes. (Ben, Chris, Kevin, I miss you all; let’s find a time to hang out; I’ll download some Creedence Clearwater Revival and Johnny Cash we can listen to.) I say that as a joke, but it’s also true. There are amazing white dudes in our sector and in society doing critical work making the world better. Still, we need to have a talk.
Last week, I was on Clubhouse in a conversation called “If Nonprofits Were Brutally Honest with Funders” (with colleagues Dr. Rahsaan Harris, Kris Putnam-Walkerly, and Julie Morris). After my remarks about power dynamics, the injustices upon which much of philanthropy is based, and how so little funding goes to organizations led by marginalized communities, listeners were invited to join in. The first person said something about how people of color should learn to “pitch” better so that funders and donors could understand their ideas. (Another person said being nice and getting people to empathize and bringing them ice cream to eat and puppies to snuggle with would work better in soliciting funding than my “angry complaints,” but that’s for another post).
The idea of “pitching” is not new. We have been trained to do “elevator pitches” that are supposed to be pithy yet moving, sincere yet polished, inspiring yet grounded, all in 20 seconds. We pitch to donors, funders, politicians, partner orgs, volunteers. Grants, meanwhile, are basically just long pitches. We do a lot of pitching.
The most extreme manifestation of this idea of “pitching” are the “Shark Tank”-style funding opportunities where leaders go on stage to give short presentations about their organizations’ work to a live audience, after which, depending on how they do and how the “judges” and people watching their presentations react, they could walk away with one of several small grant prizes.