“Dancing with Program Officers” and 5 other nonprofit-themed reality TV shows we need


audience-868074_960_720So many of the challenges the nonprofit sector faces exist because of our poor portrayal in the media. This is why I think we should lobby for more shows that highlight the exciting and complex work all of us in the field are doing. A while ago I wrote about “Nonprofit and Afraid,” a show where people who have little experience with nonprofits are put to work at a nonprofit for six weeks. Here are some other ideas I’ve thought of, and sneak previews of what they might look like:

Dancing with Program Officers:

12 nonprofit staff are paired with 12 program officers of local foundations to learn various funding dances, including the “Should I call them first or should I just send in the LOI?” and “Who should pay for lunch?”

Emcee: On the floor now are Alan and Marjorie. Alan, the DD of Think of the Children, has been having trouble rehearsing for the Site Visit Dance, a nerve-wracking number with feints and swirls. Marjorie, his partner and program officer at the Swifter Foundation, has been supportive in her coaching. Let’s see how they fare tonight:

Alan: Thanks for coming down to see our program in action, Margaret. I’m sorry, I mean Marjorie…

Marjorie: No problem, people get that wrong all the time. I should just change it, ha ha.

Emcee: An understandable stumble, given his nerves, and a graceful recovery, but our panel of judges does not look happy.

Alan: This year, we served 390 kids, 85% free-and-reduced-lunch, through four programs…

Marjorie: That’s wonderful. What are some of the results you’ve seen?

Emcee: The Site Visit Dance is a tricky dance, since it combines both technicality and heart. Alan is relying too much on technique. He needs to bring more heart, more stories. Let’s hope he doesn’t flub this one like he did last week in the “Clarifying Questions on the Proposal Budget” dance.

Hell’s Charity:

Each season brings 12 to 20 aspiring nonprofiteers to Hell’s Charity, where they are divided into a Red Team and a Blue Team and compete on nonprofit-related challenges while being yelled at by an insulting coach from the business sector who has no experience with nonprofits. Each week sees the elimination of one or more competitors until a winner emerges, who will be given the EDship of a hot new NGO.

Announcer: It is Week 5, and the teams are busy preparing their tables for a resource fair. Milwaukeean Chris on the Blue Team makes a fatal mistake.

Coach: Bloody hell, Chris, you donkey! Everyone, come look at this! Look at this [expletive] garbage! You call this a bloody tri-fold? You wouldn’t last a day in the business world! Wendy, what is wrong with this?

Wendy: Uh, there’s no statistics, sir…?

Coach: Bloody right! Not even a [expletive] pie chart! And where’s your business plan? And don’t get me started on the font of the mission statement! Start over, you weasel-faced stupid man!

So You Think You can Run a Nonprofit

Contestants of all ages, backgrounds, and career choices demonstrate how well they can run a nonprofit. A panel of judges evaluates their actions. Each week, after tackling challenge scenarios, a contestant will be eliminated through a combination of judges’ scores and votes by viewers. The winner will be declared “America’s Favorite Nonprofit Warrior” and will win a prize of $250,000 in in-kind donations. Here, we see the audition rounds:

Judge 1: What’s your name?

Contestant: My name is Luke. I’m 48. I’m a lawyer with my own legal practice specializing in patent law.

Judge 2: And how much experience running a nonprofit have you had, Luke?

Luke: None, but I have volunteered a few times.

Judge 1: What are you going to be doing today?

Luke: I’m going to demonstrate how I can reduce the overhead of an organization from 25% to 10%.

Judge 3: That’s a lofty goal. Project the Excel spreadsheet onto the screen.

Luke, using a laser pointer: OK, since overhead is made up of wasteful expenses like fundraising and admin staff and useless things like rent, insurance, and utilities, I’m going to go ahead and remove some of these things. First, I’m going to reduce the Development Director to a half-time position and fire the office manager/volunteer coordinator/finance director. Bloop. Gone. The ED’s salary can be cut by $20,000 because this is charity and it sends the wrong message when staff are paid all that much. Actually, I have a retired friend who used to run a small business who can do it for free. Then, I’m going to take out these line items, liability insurance and supplies. If staff are careful, the org will be OK, and they can always find supplies on the Free section of Craigslist. Voila! Overhead is now down to 9%!

Judge 1: Luke, you gave it a valiant effort, but it’s a no from me. Others?

Judge 2: Bloop. No.

Judge 3: Sorry, I think you should learn some actual nonprofit practices and come back next year. No.

Judge 4: That was one of the dumbest things anyone has ever said in the history of humankind. No.

America’s Funniest Fundraising Videos:

Hilarity and hijinks galore! Each week, the AFFV team screens hundreds of hysterical videos sent in by nonprofit staff and board. These short videos, used during fundraising events to move donors to give, provide glimpses into nonprofit work and offer incredible moments of levity. AFFV offers $10,000 first-place prize each week to the funniest fundraising videos, as voted on by a live studio audience.

Emcee: You know, while the Recession was bad, there are still moments of humor. Roll the next video!

Case Manager at a homeless shelter, being interviewed on video: Thanks to the state of the economy, we’re seeing more and more people lining up each night. We just don’t have enough beds for everyone. [Canned laughter] Our funding keeps getting cut [Canned laughter]. Your support matters

[Cut to staff members sitting in the audience silently mouthing the words “Please, we need the $10,000 to keep the shelter open.”].


Four Executive Directors, their Board chairs, and four program officers agree to live together in one house for a month. Their daily lives will be recorded. Confessional cameras capture their thoughts. Can they survive 30 days together?

Announcer: Tension has been building up over the past few days over the dishes. Steven, unofficial leader of the EDs, has been hoping that board chair Daphne’s birthday would provide an opportunity for some healing and relationship building:

Steven, ED, on confessional cam: It has been rough with the program officers, I won’t lie. One keeps wanting to know how much soap we’ve been using to wash the dishes. I understand where he’s coming from, but the other EDs have been frustrated.

Marla, ED, yelling at Dan, PO: Why does it matter how much soap I’m using?! The dishes are clean! And it’s not like I’m just pouring dishwashing detergent down the drain! I know how to wash dishes! I do it every day! Why don’t YOU wash some dishes once a while, Dan?! Either trust me to do my work, or wash the dishes yourself!

Dan, PO: Hey, I’m just trying to make sure we have enough dishwashing detergent to last the rest of the month! Dishwashing detergent don’t just grow on trees, Marla! Sustainability, you know!

Marla, ED, on confessional cam: Honestly, the program officers have been a pain. Washing dishes was just the beginning. We asked to help plan the party for Daphne, and they refused, saying they needed a “safe space” for party planning. None of us EDs have any idea what’s going on for the party. I thought we were supposed to work together; isn’t our goal the same? To plan an awesome birthday party?!

Dan, PO, on confessional cam: Look, we program officers aren’t trying to be exclusive. It’s just we want to plan a party for Daphne without a bunch of people coming up all the time asking, “What kind of cake are you having at the party? Can I have a piece? Can I have some soda?!”

Daphne, Board Chair, on confessional cam: What am I supposed to be doing again?

ED Swap:

Two nonprofits, usually of different sizes and missions, swap Executive Directors for two weeks. During the first week, each ED must follow the rules set by the organization’s real ED. During the second week, however, each ED can create new policies that the organization must follow.

Announcer: Jon, the easy-going director of a nonprofit animal sanctuary, has been swapped with Samantha, the hard-driven and efficient CEO of a large national youth development organization. It is the second week, and both are having trouble getting staff to buy into their new policies.

Staff: Wait, so you’re saying we have to fill out timesheets not just with the total hours we worked, but with a breakdown daily of what we actually did?

Samantha: Yes. And we are all going to have regular working hours. I also don’t want to see anyone bringing animals into the office from now on. Got it?

Announcer: Meanwhile…

Jon: Everyone, take a break. I’ve brought bunnies!

These are just a few of the ideas. Others include: “Undercover Board,” “The Amazing Free Supplies Race,” “501c3 Court,” “Who Wants to be a Multi-Year Grantee?” and “To Catch a Development Director Who Didn’t Make Acknowledgements in Time.” What shows would you like to see? Write stuff in the comment section. And if you know anyone in Hollywood, please tell them about these brilliant ideas.

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15 thoughts on ““Dancing with Program Officers” and 5 other nonprofit-themed reality TV shows we need

  1. Gary Minford

    How about ‘The Voice – The Chairs’ where people watch a succession of non-profit staff compete, not for a chance to win a talent show, but for a chance to get one of the only functioning swivel chairs. Witness people putting their jackets over the back of the chair to hide it’s quality. Witness other people coming in early to move the chair to their desk, “I don’t know, it was here when I got in…”

  2. Jeanne Kojis

    There clearly needs to be a show where sixteen executive directors are pitted against each other to create the most on-trend program as judged by a panel of board members and funders. Each ED receives the same budget to go shopping for program components but needs to make an Innovative and super-metricized program which photographs fantastically well yet is editorial and appeals to diverse audiences, especially those individuals with large budgets. Toss in a twist where the executives pull numbers from a button bag that matches them up with unknown and sometimes uncooperative ‘helpers’ who play the role of collaborating partner or board member. Can you create a seamless business plan for a program that shows nary a hint of a donation… in a single day? If so, see you on Nonprofit Runway!

    1. Ben Alexander

      Data-driven collective impact public private partnership to leverage community assets to influence the policy-making environment to change the built environment to move the needle on health factors. Also, your budget is $250.

      1. Gary Minford

        Actually you only get $125, the other 50% you have to raise yourself to show sustainability.

  3. Margaret Cuccinello

    Thanks for making my Monday morning. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I wouldn’t mind being a judge on So You Think You Can Run a Nonprofit!

  4. Eliza Giberson

    Four Galas (Based on TLC’s Four Weddings): Events Managers or DDs from four different nonprofits attend each others annual events and critique them giving points for different aspects of the event including silent/live auction items, check-in/check-out procedures, food and beverage, featured speaker, and event design. The four managers have to score each category and the organization with the best overall score doesn’t have to do their annual event in their next fiscal year.

  5. C4NPR

    Here in Northwest Ohio, we were thinking “Nonprofit Shark Tank”. At The Center for Nonprofit Resources we get calls and emails several times a week from people with champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Our show promises “all the drama of pitch meetings and the interaction between the entrepreneurs and tycoons”…well not exactly tycoons but funders, who are like tycoons but without jaunty captain’s hats.

  6. Albert Ruesga

    Loved this post. Most of my time in The Sektor has felt like perpetual reruns, the same scene with Gilligan dropping coconuts on the Skipper’s head, repeated eternally, only it’s someone at a meeting drawing a big circle or triangle with the word COMMUNITY in the center of it.

  7. HowardLake

    A fabulous series of ideas! It has struck me for a long time that, here in the UK, the nonprofit sector is under-represented on TV shows.

    Where are the sitcoms or soaps set in a nonprofit office, a charity thrift shop, in an animal rescue centre? We can all share stories of the funny, quirky people we meet in this industry and the sometimes farcical events and situations we encounter.

    Where are the dramas set in the nonprofit world?

    Where are the business news programmes that focus just on nonprofits and social enterprises and the particular issues they experience?

    How about a programme that explores the reality of grantmaking? Who makes the decisions, how, and which lives do they transform? How about that for drama!

    It’s not as if the nonprofit sector is a minority interest in the UK. We have over 900,000 paid staff working in the sector, millions of volunteers, and of course many millions of donors.

    Instead we have telethons like last week’s Red Nose Day (which has now raised £1 billion over the past 30 years) and the occasional ‘reality’ show such as Secret Millionaire in which a wealthy individual goes undercover to meet and explore the tough lives of other people, before choosing to reveal themselves and make a major gift to help them with a community project.

    Interesting, compelling and valuable as they are, they hardly cover the breadth, vitality and public interest that the nonprofit sector can offer.

    1. House0fTheBlueLights

      There have been a couple of shows in the US featuring community law offices.

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