Birds of a Feather,” Alex Janu

July 9, 2018; The Conversation

Writing for the Conversation, Brian Mittendorf, a professor of The Ohio State University’s Department of Accounting and MIS and frequent commentator on the state of the nonprofit sector, makes a link between the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) and the Wounded Warrior Project. Both, he suggests, were blinded by their own unmitigated growth aspirations.

NPQ readers are likely all too familiar with both cases. As Mittendorf writes, both openly longed after and valued rapid growth, seeing it as an indicator of success. Unfortunately, it also drove some pretty questionable cultural practices at both high-profile nonprofits. In the case of SVCF, it caused leadership to ignore reports of harassment and abuse of staff from a high-performing fundraiser, along with openly voiced criticisms about its focus on financial assets. At Wounded Warrior, it helped form a culture that looked like a bad movie about young Wall Street hotshots gone wild. Neither was a great look for a steward of the donor dollar.

Mittendorf suggests that other signs were present at SVCF. For example, it was not particularly tuned in to the local community beyond its donors: “Only one-third of the money the foundation gave nonprofits in 2017 supported local groups based in nine nearby counties,” he writes, “and to expand its donor base, it maintains four offices in California and one in Manhattan.”

Even in his resignation statement, Mittendorf points out, SVCF president Emmett Carson “emphasized growth under his watch more than his regrets about the personnel problems that led to his ouster. Though he stressed financial numbers, he made no mention of the number of people who were served due to donations that had coursed through the foundation he led since its founding.” And, as we recently wrote, Wounded Warrior is still suffering from the loss of donor faith as it works hard toward righting its ship.

But Mittendorf doesn’t think this behavior is far from the norm in this sector. He thinks far too many nonprofit leaders have been influenced by the likes of Dan Pallotta, who he has previously critiqued in our pages. Jim Schaffer, another writer at NPQ, agrees, speaking to the problem in 2016:

Don’t misunderstand: No one will argue that restraint and fear of success are the way to go. Nonprofit work already comprises the bold and the visionary, work that changes how people think and act with one another. But vision and boldness are nothing without humility and an understanding and observation of the ethics of trust, the precious contract at the core of our relationships with donors and stakeholders in general. Its lack of primacy in what we do has created havoc in Pallotta’s wake, but a great salesman may care less about the quality of his product than he does about selling it.

“Financial growth is only a means to a more lofty end for the charitable sector,” cautions Mittendorf, “But if the growth-above-all mentality continues to spread, it will surely erode the public’s confidence in foundations and nonprofits.”—Ruth McCambridge