Maddening Paradoxes of the Nonprofit World

15 Sep, 2020


Maddening Paradoxes of the Nonprofit World

September 2020

If you work for a nonprofit or are considering contributions to one, check out Vu Le’s blistering — and funny — analysis of nine paradoxes that make life in the philanthropic world so maddening. Much of what the former executive director of Seattle’s RVC says, fortunately or otherwise, applies to almost any organization. (His name is pronounced “voo lay,” if you’re wondering.)

Consider the Innovation Paradox. “Rewarding ‘innovative’ programs and services,” Le writes, actually reduces innovation. Funders “don’t want to fund existing, proven-effective programs; they want to chase shiny new stuff. It’s exhausting, and some nonprofits have found clever ways to rebrand existing programs so they sound ‘innovative.’ But being forced to lie and constantly worry about funding, and having to scramble to survive because funders are enamored with shininess, these things do not lead to innovation. For innovation to happen, people need trust and stability of support so they can experiment, fail, and iterate.”

And how about the Data-Resource Paradox? “Organizations cannot get significant funding without good data, but they cannot get good data without significant funding,” Le writes. “This has been a bane for many organizations, especially organizations led by marginalized communities. Added to the complexity is that what is considered ‘good data’ is determined by elite white institutions and people, which makes it even more difficult and expensive to obtain. We need to completely rethink how we view and resource data as well as who gets to define what is acceptable data and what is not.”

And a third paradox — the Outcomes Paradox: “The hyper-focus on outcomes often lessens the likelihood that there will be successful outcomes.”

Le writes, “Our sector has been conditioned to think that outcomes are awesome. And they are. To a point. But the gravitation toward outcomes often leads to ones that are narrow, easily-measurable, and short-term. Significant changes will take years, possibly decades to achieve. By being too focused on immediate, easily-accessible outcomes, we miss out on these longer-term successes.” This is not a new insight, but it is an important one. When the emphasis is on quantifiable results, energy shifts to finding the most easily achievable and therefore quantifiable results — rather than the most important ones.

There are six other paradoxes (“The Strategic Planning Paradox” is wonderfully provocative) that you might or might not agree with but will stimulate your thinking and make for lively discussion.

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