Spirit of Hitchhiking 2 / Constantine Kokorin

Nothing captures people’s attention like an early-morning mass email the day after Labor Day. On September 5, 2017, the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations & Executives (NANOE) sent one out directed to “Senior Nonprofit Leaders Only.” The text and link promoted a new Bridgespan Group survey on nonprofit business models. Now, this is an important topic, and an area NPQ has been working on for some time. But this “strange bedfellows” scenario caught many people’s attention, and when our readers’ attention is caught, they email us.

Bridgespan is a buttoned-down, Boston-based nonprofit consulting firm with a $30 million budget and close ties to major foundations. NANOE is a 501(c)(3) that has a nominal Washington, D.C. mailing address but mostly calls South Carolina home; that’s where it holds its biennial convention & expo and offers a variety of credentials for a fee, including “Certified Nonprofit Consultant.”

NPQ has written a few times about NANOE, including here and here, and its claim to the unique territory of advocating simultaneously for installing all CEOs as board chairs and for the financial compensation of nonprofit board members as a norm, among other things. These points, of course, fly in the face of the public benefit accountability mechanisms of nonprofits, though they may be attractive to nonprofit leaders who are frustrated with those important checks and balances. As far as we can see, NANOE is generally ignored by senior leaders with a whit of sense, although every time they send out an email, NPQ is deluged with “who are these guys?” hits from suspicious nonprofit recipients who have received their “you have been nominated!” missives. What people are being nominated to is a national “board of governors” with no duties—a blessing for which they must pay a fee. (You know the deal.) The Chronicle of Philanthropy eventually covered the NANOE in March of this year in an article entitled “New Nonprofit Puts Money over Mission and Ethics.”

But NANOE is, apparently, a master email machine with a broad reach.

So is born an excellent case study in why one must be careful about the reputations and organizational practices of one’s partners.

Apparently, Bridgespan identified NANOE as a membership network through which they could administer a survey and Bridgespan obtained NANOE’s agreement to send out the survey request on Bridgespan’s behalf. What emerged on the other end was apparently nothing less than  brand hijacking.

The email sent out was topped with the image below…

…and bore the subject line, “Bridgespan and NANOE Collaboration.”

“Good Morning,” the missive began. “I trust you had a restful labor day [sic] weekend. Fall is upon us and we’d like to invite you to start your September in a thoughtful way.”

Recipients were then invited to share their nonprofit experiences in a nationwide 10-15 minute survey conducted by Bridgespan Group in collaboration with NANOE. The email concluded with a transcript of a press release with the headline, “Bridgespan Group and NANOE partner to conduct important survey of senior nonprofit leadership,” describing the collaboration and citing both NANOE Program Director Kathleen Robinson and a Bridgespan staffer as press contacts.

Let’s face it, NANOE and Bridgespan make a very odd pair, so we followed up with Bridgespan. We received a short response from Liz London, who is their Director of Media and Conferences.

Bridgespan invited a number of membership organizations, including NANOE to be distribution channels for a survey, in the spirit of building knowledge for the sector. We did NOT authorize the press release, nor any joint announcement.

Taking London at her word, in the end, we are left to wonder, did the high-priced Bridgespan Group not know the dings on the reputation and practices of NANOE? How is that possible? Did they not care that in using them, they were implicitly supporting their currency? Is Bridgespan so big that this could slip past a staff person? Anyone can make a mistake, of course, but knowing the landscape is an expected element of normal reputation management and a necessary part of the knowledge base of consulting groups.

In the nonprofit sector, our reputations are a good part of our capital. So, if you want your reputation to grow rather than be eroded by your relationships, even just with promotional partners, don’t place yourself in the position of bartering it away—not for short or for long change, nor for a really well-developed email operation.

Special thanks are due to Consulting Editor Michael Wyland for his contributions and guidance.