9 annoying nonprofit trends that need to die


light-bulb-503881_640pdHi everyone, I am heading to Vietnam this week for a much-needed vacation. I’ll still be writing each Monday, but can’t guarantee the quality of the blog posts, since I’ll be stuffing my face with street food and coconut juice. But, before I go, let’s address some irritating trends that have surfaced in our sector. Below are a few that the NWB Facebook community came up with. See if you agree, and for the love of hummus, if you are guilty of any of them, cut it out right now.

Ignite-style presentations: “Ignite” involves a five-minute Powerpoint presentation with 20 slides, where the slides advance themselves every 15 seconds. It cuts off long-winded people, and it’s kind of fun to see how speakers match up their speech with the slides. When done right, and used mostly for humorous and easy-to-understand stuff, it can be great. But I’ve seen it too often used for novelty’s sake to explain difficult nonprofit concepts or missions, in which case it becomes “presentation by karaoke,” underestimates the intelligence of the audience, wastes endless hours of speakers’ time in preparation, and makes me want to punch the event organizer in the neck. I once attended an event feature five of these short presentations. People had a great time—“Ooh, that lightbulb graphic appeared JUST when she said ‘I had an idea!’ That’s so, like, awesome!”—but by the end of the night, no one in the audience remembered anything the speakers said.

Corporate one-day volunteer or teambuilding projects. This is when a business sends like a bazillion workers to a nonprofit for a day to help it paint walls or make sandwiches or read to kids or darn socks for veterans or whatever. Again, when done right, it can be a great partnership. And a great photo-op for everyone. But usually the business people don’t realize how much time it costs us nonprofit to coordinate this. Often, the business folks leave feeling like heroes, and we end up cleaning up the mess and then we never see them again. Says one of my colleague, “Your corporate image does not trump our need to get tasks done. Several corporate volunteer projects have been horrible because the employees treat it like a day off and goof off/leave early/drink at lunch.” Hey corporations, if you want to help, volunteer throughout the year with “unsexy” stuff like fundraising and data entry.

Popularity contest “grants”: Really, corporations, you’re going to award money to the organizations that get the most “likes” or votes? Yup, it’s a brilliant marketing technique: The grantor “helps” the community, while getting lots and lots of publicity with very little effort. How about you actually do the right thing by having an equitable selection process and stop making us nonprofits shill for you? We have stuff to do. This reminds me of a rapper who promised to donate a buck to starving kids for each “like” his Facebook page receives. Ew! Using hungry kids to boost your image is despicable, dude. Let’s agree to not participate in these types of schemes.

Crowdfunding: Look, I’m not against novel ways of diversifying our revenue sources. But crowdfunding is getting touted as some sort of miracle elixir that will solvecrystal ball pd all our fiscal ailments. It’s not. It only works for certain types of organizations and missions and projects. But because it’s so shiny, it’s “blah blah crowdfunding this” and “blah blah crowdfunding that” and “my cousin was an ED of an org that was in trouble, and they tried crowdsourcing, and within three days, they raised 5 billion, and also her cholesterol level went down and her acne cleared up!” as if it were so easy. We all know effective fundraising takes time and resource and at least one reputable psychic, so crowdfunding is just one more tool in our toolbox, not some sort of panacea. (All that said, I’ll eventually be asking for crowdfunding donations when I launch my “Nonprofit: The Musical” project).

Hiring outside consultants and consulting firms instead of locals: For some reason, we seem to have this “outsider efficacy bias,” where people from outside our organization, or city, or state, are more intelligent than the people inside. This is why “Nonprofit: The Musical” will have, as one of its characters, a consultant robot, whose only job is to repeat exactly what an internal staff or board member says; the difference is that the robot actually gets listened to. This is not a dis on consultants, since I do some consulting and thus technically am one. But it does get annoying, frequently insulting, and oftentimes ineffective. Think of local consultants before you start outsourcing. Chances are, they know the context and key players way better and can provide more effective solutions.

The obsession with millennials: All right, enough with the articles, blog posts, webinars, Youtube videos, tweets, infographics, and interpretive dances about millennials. Not that I have anything against our bright-eyed, optimistic, smart, technology-focused colleagues who love a good hot yoga session and taking pictures of their meals, but enough is enough. There are other groups we also need to pay attention to. Where are the infographics about the brilliant and talented Gen Xers, whom one of my colleagues calls “History’s latchkey kids”? (You can’t have “generous and sexy” without Gen X) Also, don’t forget the vegan nonprofiteers, who are rapidly growing in number; are our meeting snacks changing to meet their needs?!

Marketing an org or project as “100% volunteer run”: This is very similar to the annoying and harmful habit of saying “100% of your donations go to programming.” We love volunteers, but being proud of something being “100% volunteer-run” is insulting to nonprofit professionals. As a colleague says: “Many orgs start this way but eventually for sustainability, paid staff is needed to scale, strengthen and survive. Even if the org is all-volunteer, tag lines like this devalue the often very underpaid staff that many nonprofits need to get all of their work done. Nonprofit staff deserves to get paid. Their work is plentiful and important.” 

Data, data, blah blah, data: As I explained in “Weaponized data: How the obsession with data has been hurting marginalized communities,” I love data, but the obsession with it is going too far. Data by itself doesn’t accomplish crap. I’ve seen too many funders investing in data and producing shiny reports that get read by no one because you need people to actually use the data, and if you don’t invest in people and organizations, your data is sitting on some shelf collecting dust bunnies, which just sounds cute, but it’s not!

“Innovation”: Can we stop chasing “innovative” solutions? As I mentioned in “The frustration with innovation: Bright Shiny Object Syndrome and its effect on the nonprofit sector,” the obsession with “novel” solutions is like trying the various fad diets as opposed to the boring sensible-diet-and-exercise-routine. Innovation is great, but not when it’s at the cost of tried-and-true. You know what’s an example of something REALLY innovative? The Ford Foundation’s recent shift to giving only general operating grants. Is this new and sexy? No. But will this allow more of Ford Foundation’s grantees to focus on doing a better job? Hell yeah. Am I going to name my next kid “Darren” after the Foundation’s new president? Maybe.

Of course, everything has its place. In the right context, and with moderation, and maybe some tequila, I wouldn’t mind sitting through an Ignite presentation given by an outside consultant regarding quantitative data on innovative crowdfunding through Millennials.

There is a bunch of other trends that get on my nerves—fakequity, for example; and an entire blog post is coming on the challenges with Collective Impact; and another post on stuff that are not trends but rather nonprofit sacred cows that we need to release into the wilderness—but it’s 1am, and I need to sleep. Let me know if you agree or disagree with any of the trends above, and what other trends you see that make you want to break out into an angry ballad if you were in “Nonprofit: The Musical.”

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  • Devra Thomas

    I don’t even know where to start my praise. Every. Single. GD. Thing. Hate them all.

  • This post is especially good fodder for debate, because a lot of your readers do a lot of the things you mention! (Love it!)
    A few I’ll raise some alternate perspectives on….
    Popularity contests/crowdfunding are mostly annoying. But, there is value in being able to rally a network of supporters and raise awareness about what needs funding. There are some organizations for whom these practices actually raise visibility that they are a nonprofit organization that has to raise money to exist. I also don’t love these practices, but for a different reason: they’re not usually structured with sustainability in mind. Sure, you add everyone who voted or donated to an email list, but then what? They get annoyed every week when your organization sends something else out? If contest-hosting funders or crowdfunding sites were able to offer real communications help and mandate smarter thinking around sustainability, I’d be more interested.
    Data data blah – Data can be helpful, but what drives me nuts is that data ISN’T JUST QUANTITATIVE. When we think about data as qualitative, too, there’s a lot more that funders and programs alike can learn, and sometimes it tells a better story than the twisted way we frame numbers.
    Agree that outside consultants who parachute in don’t generally know the context. But there are many places where local consultants either simply don’t exist or don’t have expertise that will be helpful to a given situation. I struggle with where organizations should draw the line at locally-based v outside help, because hiring someone who’s not quite right for the job just because they’re local isn’t worth it.
    My favorites on your list are millennial obsessing (I throw a fit every time; seriously.) and constantly trying to innovate (there’s still a lot of borrowing from good practices that we can do as a different type of innovating). I, too, might be naming my firstborn child or pet or technological device Darren. Cousins?

  • Patricia Neal

    Excellent post. I see “shiny” showing up several times, which i agree gets way too much focus. Shiny aka new, sexy, quirky. I would like to be recognized for “enduring” and would like that quality to count in the top 5.

  • Hildie Lipson

    Amen, brother. Esp the popularity contest grants. Popularity is not equivalent to need. Thanks and enjoy your trip to Vietnam.

  • verucaamish

    Feeling this list big time, especially the crowdfunding and contest one. I’ve seen that those things truly exacerbate inequity. What happens if you work involves working with people who don’t have access to the internet? I know so many organizations who get screwed because they spend precious staff time trying to get votes and likes when their constituencies are people who are LEP, incarcerated, or elderly. I remember having to prepare a presentation for a group of young people who were raising money. Organizations were invited to “compete” and present their work to get 10K of funding. The instructions were clear that you weren’t allowed to use multimedia presentations. I would say of the 10 organizations invited, 3 used multimedia presentations. All three were funded. Contests really do create the “ooh shiny” dynamic. Organizations who do base building and organizing will always be at a disadvantage.

    P.S. LOVE these and one outcome that’s happening with this blog is that you are creating a thoughtful and reflective space for us to share our experiences.

  • Julie

    I started my Monday morning frustrated and after reading your post I am down right pissed off. As usual, you nailed it. Do you think I will end up in jail if I nail it to my board chair’s forehead? He is a newbie, very corporate, thinks being chair may make him a demi-god, and I spend most of time and what little is left of my patience explaining to him why every single one of the points you have included in your post this week are bad-bad-bad for a solid,mid-sized, largely solvent and successful np to count on and embrace as our (unnecessary) salvation. Fa-lala-fa- lala-la-la-la! (in C minor please!)
    Rant over. Thank you once again for providing a safe place for it.
    I hope you have an absolutely peaceful and refreshing vacation. Give your family my best.

  • Alan_Muller

    Most of this rings true, but these things are peripheral to the real problems of the “environmental community” : collapse of integrity, selling out to the interests supposedly opposed.

    • McPierogiPazza

      And eight million enviro nonprofits fighting for their piece of the media and/or funding pie.

  • Barbara Stross

    Yup, you have it. Being one of those other groups (pre-boomer), fortunately I’ve never had to suffer through an “ignite” session, but as an active volunteer I know how much planning and clean-up those one-day corporate binges take. And you’re right on with the rest of what you say.

  • Don

    I like the essence of where you’ve gone, but would take a both/and approach on some of the items. As in, both what you’ve said above, AND the helpful kernal(s) of usefulness underlying the ways people have gone overboard with some of the strategies/tools above.

    For example, I’d hardly call “data” a trend. I’d call it an essential ingredient in good long term decision making. Not the ONLY ingredient, but an essential one. Some folks are wired differently and might need different doses of data to make good decisions, or might need data in different forms (intuitive, experiential, abstract, narrative…), or at different times in the process.

    The problem with data is thinking that gathering data accomplishing anything on its own. One still has to have the wisdom to understand the larger picture the data points to, and to use the information effectively/helpfully.

  • Karen Staley

    First it is as if you sit in my office and hear the insanity that is spoken on a daily basis. Second enjoy your vacation..I am hopeful it will lead to some deep introspective that has you writing us some insanely accurate and funny stuff!

  • Lorraine Thomas

    IF I was in Nonproft: The Musical???? I dream of being in Nonprofit: The Musical. (Nailed it, as always, my friend).

  • Catherine Benson

    I had a boss who would believe everything the highly paid consultant told him, which was usually exactly what the staff had already told him (and at lower cost).

  • Vanessa

    As a non-profit leader who agrees with everything you wrote (OMG I’ve called them popularity contests for ages), and a veteran composer/writer of musicals, I’m volunteering to collaborate with you on the musical :-).

    • Fern Naomi Renville

      Me, too!!

    • Andrea Lemon

      As a veteran theatre director and dramaturge – I 100% volunteer to direct the musical as long as I am voted into the position through a crowd-funding poll with small prizes of out-of-date turkish delight to entice supporters.

    • Laura B

      As a non-profit employee and volunteer for many years, and a former theater director, I’ll happily offer my services as well on the musical! Every single point in this article is spot-on!

  • Julia Foster

    You nailed it…as always! The consultant topic particularly resonates with me. With all due respect to consultants (and believe me…I LOVE having a good consultant around when needed…) I have been in far too many situations where higher-ups listen to outside consultants as if they walk on water, when internal staff have repeatedly been saying the same thing and get no recognition for their smart ideas. In one particular instance, I had a boss who actually said to me (in meeting inclusive of consultant, after consultant said what I had been saying)…”oh…is that what you were trying to say to me yesterday?” Um…yeah! But did said boss apologize or acknowledge that perhaps I had been right in my assessment? Um…no!!
    Onward…enjoy your time in Vietnam!

    • shazdancer

      Worse, said consultant is there merely to parrot what the person hiring him wants him to say.

  • Ron Ein

    As always, you point out the obvious craziness that most of us tolerate too often, for too long, in silence. Go, enjoy your vacation and come back ready to debunk more myths.

  • Gina Tonic

    I wish I could send this to my board and have them actually read it. Maybe if I hired a consultant and had them send it?

  • Elizabeth Creely

    Oh my god, yes. As a former-very, very former- fundraiser and high-donor ambassador, YES.

  • Nancy Steele

    Extension to your beef about corporate volunteer days: corps that won’t give orgs any funding unless their staff have volunteered. And some of their funding is decided by staff, so they have to volunteer to know your org. So I finally decided that we had to create volunteer opportunities (why are highly-skilled. highly-paid people weeding gardens and planting trees on a Saturday morning?) for the chance that maybe – maybe – they’ll give us money some day to do the real work.

  • Neal Myrick

    Great article once again! My take away from this is that these nine things have value in the right place, with the right context, and in the right proportion.

  • Frog Lover

    Brilliant. Thank you. Basically, you’re reminding us that so much of this stuff is shallow novelty.

  • Ahem. “Unsexy fundraising?”


    Another really good post, Vu. Thank you. And have a great vacation!

  • sara

    And do NOT forget the “Chair de jour”, you know the HIGH Profile folks that Chair about fifteen events a year and as such, all the charities LOSE! Call me OLD, but what ever happened to common sense and relationships that were meaningful? How did we lose the true Board/Staff team mentality and working together….oh wait, how silly, when I was a CEO, we actually held Board Members accountable….Oh wait, when I was working in Corporate America we held our employees accountable when they sat on a C-3 Board…guess that is way Ol Skool though….

  • JaneGarthson

    What a fabulous list! The first time I saw the Ignite process used, I loved it. By the third time I saw those flaws. And while I’m a big fan of innovation and systems thinking, the way grantmakers use it is often counterproductive, as you point out. The Ford Fdn. example is dead on. And yes, why do Toronto nonprofits think it worthwhile to fly in a consultant from Australia (not that he isn’t really good) for a one-off session rather than get longer-term local support with those monies? Research shows that one-off governance sessions do not produce optimal lasting results as boards and EDs slip back into old ways without periodic support and refreshers.

  • R.L Lindsey

    No volunteer would put up with this to write killer grant proposals. Non-profit professionals need protection.

  • onepointseventimesbodyweight

    Working for a small charity the “consultants” bit drives me mad.

    We were under pressure to save a bit of money and increase our funding sources. So, the trustees sacked the CEO (cost £XX,XXX), and hired a consultant CEO for £XX,XXX per month.
    Then after a few months the consultant made the fundraising team redundant.
    Eventually the Comms Manager ragequit because he wasn’t allowed to respond to journalists without express permission from the consultant.

    So, £XXX,XXX later, with no fundraising team, and precious little programme activity due to internal changes to justify funding, the consultant has now left and the new CEO is saying “Why don’t we have a fundraiser again?”

  • Dan Viederman

    i pledge $5 to your crowdfunding campaign for Nonprofit: The Musical.

    • Thanks, Dan! With your pledge, so far we have raised a total of…$5!

      • Dan Viederman

        of course, my pledge is restricted – the show will have to star my daughter.

  • ErikBaard

    Some great points but get over yourself in objecting vegan snacks. Eating vegan won’t kill you, is more sustainable, and more inclusive (easier to meet Kosher and Halal standards). A thoughtful and valid critique of substantive concerns was weakened by that pissy aside.

    • Erik, I have been a vegan for 25 years, so that was not a pissy aside but a gentle poke at the fact that yes we do need better vegan food such as at fundraising galas, were we get a salad with a dozen chick peas as the entree! We vegans must unite!

      • ErikBaard

        My apologies for missing the sarcasm.

        • Apologies accepted 🙂 Wait, I think it’s actually more like 20 years. I can’t count, because I’m “lacking protein and B12” and can’t concentrate!

  • Blurgle

    “Often, the business folks leave feeling like heroes, and we end up cleaning up the mess and then we never see them again.”

    No, no, no. Often, the MANAGERS leave feeling like heroes, and the workers feel like their valuable time has been wasted and they’ve been forced to something they hate, all the while putting on a brave, happy face lest they be the first ones let go when the cuts begin.

    The only people who like corporate team-building exercises are managers. Everyone else LOATHES THEM with the fire of a thousand suns. It never even enters the workers’ heads that they’re a problem for the nonprofit too.

  • Sarah Weissman

    I’ve only recently cfaught up with your blog and I just really want to know if the nonprofit musical is still in process.