Philanthropic “Fad Diets” are Ultimately Bad for the Sector

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Fad diets

August 18, 2014; Nonprofit with Balls

There is nothing like an all-consuming philanthropic fad to while away the time, attention, energy, and treasure of struggling nonprofits. At NPQ, we really try to avoid inviting you into these vacuums of spirit, but when an elite grouping of philanthropoids gets ahold of a new focus of obsession, look out, because too often they do not like to enjoy it quietly at home.

Here is the rant of Vu Le, a nonprofit-management startup director with a blog called Nonprofit with Balls. He assures us that he has nothing at all against innovation, but…

“Look, innovation is great, and lots of new models and practices in our field are awesome. We should always be trying out new concepts and shifting paradigms and harvesting synergy and stuff. The frustration comes when it seems like some funders (and even nonprofits) are seeking a magic bullet, a panacea, a Holy Grail, a McRib to all of society’s problems, and they follow this quest at cost of good programs and organizations. A program officer, for example, once told me his influential foundation was no longer funding direct service programs in order to focus more on systems work, and thus would not be able to support my nonprofit’s proven after-school program that serves low-income kids, though they had supported similar programs in the past. This was one of the few times I went back to my office and broke into the emergency minibar in my cubicle.”

The author suggests that these kinds of diversions are not harmless and are something like a series of extreme fad diets. Better, he says, that philanthropists should commit to a less yoyo-like and potentially more effective philanthropic equivalent of sensible eating and exercise. This regimen might entail funding those relatively boring existing, proven programs, which are apparently less appealing. He writes that “it takes time for a program to reach a level of quality and effectiveness, and now you don’t want to fund them. And what irks many of us is that most of these funders are simultaneously asking about sustainability.” Yeah, what’s up with that?

He also suggests that wildly unsexy capacity building is a good investment as the “exercise” in the social justice weight-loss plan. This is the stuff that you dread but needs to be done because “it is essential. Organizations and programs need strong infrastructure to support them or they will suck or disappear.” Finally, he says, why not invest in volunteer management if you want an impact investment? You pay for one staffer, and if he or she does his or her job right, you get many times the value in volunteers.

In general, these are all excellent suggestions, but as with consistently sensible diets, they are definitely not the bright, shiny objects of the nonprofit sector.—Ruth McCambridge