Despite the sporadic evidence, I love blogging. The analytical and expressive exercise allows me to synthesize thoughts while creating some (maybe minuscule) incremental value. However, there are two things that paralyze the blogger in me: people talking into an echo chamber and human tragedy. So with the SXSW conference this month and a good friend in DC in the hospital, I’ve been out of commission. I can’t justify indulgent reflection when time and mental energy are better spent on someone else.
And then some time passes, something fires me up and I come back to it. This week I had a couple of long conversations with nonprofit organizations - both in India and the U.S. - that have highlighted assumptions that, in my opinion, are flawed and need to be questioned. I’d love to know what you think.
- Employees need to commit to the cause: I’ve worked for nonprofits in nearly every capacity - as a full time employee, consultant, board member and volunteer - and one of the biggest weaknesses I’ve consistently seen is this idea that people need to live and breath the issue they are working for. Rather than look for someone capable of solving difficult challenges with a willingness to bootstrap or for a specific skill set, it often seems that a demonstration of one’s allegiance to the cause is more important. As a social change generalist, I think nonprofits need to start looking first for the right abilities and then let enthusiasm for the issue be icing on the cake.
- Voting is a good idea: When online voting became popular about five years ago and significant buzz around crowdsourcing began, voting was different and an innovative way to get mass amounts of people to participate in an effort requiring very little information. However, now that these efforts seems to be launched around everything - two recent ones being the Pepsi Refresh Project and the Unreasonable Marketplace - voting has become a (mostly) irresponsible use of time and energy. If I email my entire network and encourage people through social sites to vote for my personal idea, then that’s my prerogative. But when nonprofits have to bring paid employees together to develop a strategy to drive their supporters to vote for them to win something, I wonder if anyone has calculated the value creation. How much time, energy and money is spent trying to get something that isn’t worth even a quarter of that time, energy or money?
- Consumers are either cause-driven or quality-driven: There’s a belief that people either buy from their head or from their heart and that the latter is not sustainable. In other words, a quality product will sell in any climate but a product that is branded with a cause will only sell as long as the cause marketing is strong. This actually may be true in emerging markets, but certainly in the U.S. I think this has changed. Consumers are not so polar; people can buy for cause impact and because they want the product - like Paul Newman products or Dove’s Real Beauty effort. I think the notion that products can be both practically and emotionally useful will only continue to expand.
- Volunteers can’t be counted on: There’s a belief that volunteers, or “most Americans” as one person said to me, are looking for easy answers. They want to come in, do a small amount of work only to wash their hands and walk away feeling better but never thinking again about the organization. In short, volunteering is a short-term, selfish pursuit and therefore volunteers are an unreliable, uncommitted group. On the one hand, this seems to be supported by the existence of these one day clean ups, community improvement projects - or even Race for the Cure and cause-related exercise events - where volunteers just show up and are handed paint brushes. On the contrary, however, I think many nonprofits don’t effectively use volunteers because they are missing a basic point: volunteers are human and want to feel they have made a difference. When visible day to day change isn’t realistic - which it’s not in many cases - it’s up to the organization to help show why they are doing what they are doing. If nonprofits could help individuals see that they are needed and making a difference in the big picture, I know they would find a more committed and helpful free workforce.