Pallotta’s New Notion: One Brain, Many Bodies

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Zombie / killaee

May 13, 2016; Harvard Business Review

When it comes to the nonprofit sector, Harvard Business Review has published much that was highly derivative and off-base masquerading as “innovative” over the years, so we don’t expect much. But we were surprised by Dan Pallotta’s latest contribution, essentially suggesting that the entire sector needs a single brain and central nervous system to make it act like less of a lurching, directionless zombie.

To achieve this goal, he believes, we should just consolidate the entire infrastructure depending upon one entity to guide and protect us—and, by the way, imagine for us and speak for us all, at least those of us that are “charities.” He writes, apparently forgetting that nothing develops in this unitary way in any sector—not in the corporate sector or government:

What if the sector had one coordinated force doing its advocacy, its media, its communications, its legal defense, and its grassroots organizing, and this was all connected to a merged effort to take the best practices of the evaluators and combine them into one powerful new information engine for the public? Imagine eliminating all of the redundancies in fixed costs. Consolidating databases and information and talent. Imagine the strength of the acumen and the voice. Imagine the sense of pride it would engender.

This is the kind of exciting, courageous, surprising, breathtaking action the people who work in this sector are waiting for its leaders to take. And it’s the kind of action that would multiply our ability to have an impact on all those that we serve.

He then goes on to suggest a bunch of existing organizations for this proposed merger, leaving many out but not forgetting to name his own tiny and relatively recently founded Charity Defense Council.

His anticipated objections—that this plan is an impractical pipe dream, that egos would get in the way, and that it would be too costly and complex—are not the ones that actually come to mind. We just think the proposal is silly and “old school,” smacking of tired, central committee, industrial-era thinking and a disrespect for diverse democracy, free markets, and innovation, which always have and always will depend upon messiness and conflicts of the many.

Pallotta’s making this suggestion seems a bit ironic for many reasons, but one stands out: As Kate Barr mentioned yesterday in a tweet, he just started his own new organization—CDC—presumably because he thought that no one else was capably carrying the particular flag he wanted to fly. What, under his new regime, would a group of the like-minded do in a similar circumstance? Beg the central committee for an audience?

By the way, we do not argue that the nonprofit sector’s infrastructure could use some improvements. However, those could more likely be achieved through better funding and stronger and more collaborative networks of action rather than through a massive central organization as collective brain.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Beth Gazley

    I find myself somewhere in the middle. Parsing out the details of Dan Pallotta’s idea, and overlooking for now the unfortunate choice of language (you can only imagine the reaction that members will have to the idea that the sector has no brain!! Sheesh!!)
    I hope we can agree that more COORDINATION and more ADVOCACY on regulatory issues would be helpful. I don’t think NPQ or anyone else should be so quick to discount the CDC. Sure it’s new but I don’t see any other organization — most especially Independent Sector — taking on the media as energetically as CDC has. I have really appreciated their defense of the Red Cross, for example.

    • Linda Czipo

      IMO, the National Council of Nonprofits ( ) has demonstrated exceptional thought leadership, passionate advocacy, consistent public policy excellence and RESULTS on behalf of the nonprofit community. Importantly, they are also a strong, balanced voice promoting ethics and accountability within the sector. Full disclosure – I’m a former board member and current public policy member of the Council of Nonprofits; but that just means I’ve been able to witness their exceptional work close-up. I do agree that more financial investment for advocacy (read: more funding) is desperately needed to tackle the challenges that we as a sector face; as far as I’m concerned, the Council of Nonprofits would be a great place to put it.

  • Third Sector Radio USA

    This campaign season we have heard some weird ideas from people baffled by our complex world (and fearful of it) that seem to reject plurality and the concept of democracy itself. So, it should be no surprise that similar voices are coming from a few (one?) voices in the nonprofit sector. I suggest we ignore Pallotta’s Hobbesian-based (and contradictory) rants and embrace complexity for the innovations and learning that it engenders.

  • Kebo Drew

    Right. Then, to make sure that the most marginalized have leadership and some kind of say in the issues that affect us, from a intersectional, social justice perspective that is inclusive of arts, LGBTQ people of color artists will lead the big brain and Pallotta won’t be involved? Because otherwise it’s just a continuation of the biased status quo that has us living lives vulnerable to violence, poverty and health disparities. Pallotta understands that though, right?

  • To Pallotta’s unfortunate metaphor, he has the habit of incorrectly evoking Christian comparisons. He keeps calling the closing of Pallotta Teamworks so many years ago a crucifixion for dreaming big; an attorney general and his business partners at the time simply called it habitual rapacity. This imagery of the head and the body is straight out of I Corinthians, with Christ as the head of the church. There seems to be a messiah complex going on here. The nonprofit sector has many needs, but it does not need a savior.