Let me start by lambasting myself to save you the trouble: Mencken's Ghost, you are a cynical, negative jerk for criticizing nonprofits.
Okay, now that we've had that emotional outburst, let's engage the reasoning side of the brain and deal with some facts.
It is a fact that an organization named The Nonprofit Alliance recently held a two-day conference at the swank Ventana Canyon Resort, which is in sight of my house in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains in metro Tucson. The resort is next to the trailhead for the U.S. Park Service's Ventana Canyon Trail, which begins at an elevation of about 3,000 ft., reaches almost 7,000 ft., and connects to other trails that climb to the top of the range at over 9,000 ft.
Among other features, the resort is on a golf course, has a view of city lights, and has a waterfall flowing over a cliff face behind the main building—a waterfall that is kept flowing in the long dry season by powerful pumps. The resort also has the requisite upscale restaurants, swimming pool, and health club.
This is not a Hampton Inn near the Tucson Airport.
During the conference, the valet parking lot was full of luxury cars of attendees from Tucson or close enough to Tucson to drive to the event. No doubt, the resort's limo was kept busy shuttling out-of-town attendees between the airport and resort.
According to information published by the Alliance, seating was capped at 150 attendees, or in the organization's lingo, "150 senior leaders from nonprofit organizations and commercial partners. Participation is limited to senior leaders with 15+ years experience and a title of Vice President (or equivalent) and higher."
In other words, the conference was not open to the good people who ladle soup in a soup kitchen for the homeless.
What is The Nonprofit Alliance? Well, the most telling fact about the organization is that it is headquartered in the Imperial City of Washington, DC, which is the center of one of the wealthiest metro areas in the country. The wealth is epitomized by Chevy Chase, Maryland, the home of Washington elites in government, media, nonprofits, and lobbying. The town has a median household income of over $200,000, or five times more than the median household income in the City of Tucson, or four times more than the median household income in the county that surrounds Tucson.
The City of Tucson's poverty rate of twice the national average probably keeps the Alliance from ever choosing the city for a headquarters. Oh, there's my cynicism again.
Cynicism born of experience. In my former life as a management consultant, I once consulted with a large nonprofit charity on executive compensation and other matters. It was like consulting with ravenous pigs at a trough and was even worse than consulting with big law firms or universities, two other sectors so ridden with avarice and infighting that I stopped consulting with them, also. The experience with the "charity" was so disgusting that I vowed to never again consult with a nonprofit unless it had the big heart and the small overhead of the Salvation Army, where moderately-paid executives serve the poor instead of themselves—the kind of organization that is deserving of pro bono consulting.
The vision of the Alliance is to achieve "a thriving nonprofit sector that has the resources and influence to meaningfully change the world." Its mission is to "be the authoritative voice of nonprofits to promote, protect, and strengthen the philanthropic sector in the best interests of donors and beneficiaries."
Its membership includes nonprofits that are a Who's Who of nonprofits, many of which undoubtedly do good work and deserve plaudits and donations. But sitting at the highest level of membership is AARP, an organization that is more akin to a multilevel marketing organization than a philanthropic one.
The corporate sponsors of the Alliance are predominately consulting firms, direct-mail companies, and communications outfits; that is, companies that have nonprofits as clients.
Nonprofits are a big business.
Many (most?) nonprofits lean left and seem reluctant to acknowledge the role that markets can play in fixing socioeconomic problems.
The agenda for the conference is a case in point.
The opening session was described as follows: "We begin our day with Dr. Adrian Sargeant, Chief Executive, Philanthropy Center for an engaging discussion on what it takes to build a philanthropic culture, and why our future as an effective nonprofit sector depends on it."
Note that the description didn't say this: We'll have an engaging discussion on how we can fix root problems and thus put ourselves out of business.
Another opening session was described thusly:
Debbie Weir, Senior Managing Director, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America will guide us through an examination of the changing models of nonprofit partnership, including collaboration and consolidation among similarly focused nonprofits, engagement with grassroots advocates, and alignment with corporate social responsibility programs. Joining her are Colleen Creighton, Executive Director, American Association of Suicidology, and Mary Reed, mom and volunteer survivor who was shot three times shielding her daughter at the 2011 event for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Kudos to them for wanting to stop gun violence, and sympathies to the mom who experienced the horror of being shot by a deranged shooter in a Safeway parking lot in metro Tucson. However, my predilection—at least in my egotistical mind—is to hear a scholarly discussion of both sides of a complex issue like gun control. As such, if I were an attendee, I would've wanted to hear not only the foregoing speakers but also someone like the gun-rights scholar John Lott, who has written extensively about how guns save lives; or my friend Alan Korwin, who is an expert on gun laws and the Second Amendment.
Regarding corporate social responsibility programs, a great speaker would've been my friend Marianne Jennings, who is an Emeritus Professor of Legal and Ethical Studies at the W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University. Her insightful scholarly study of corporate social responsibility programs has been recently published in the Berkeley Business Law Journal, of the University of California at Berkeley Law School. It details that most of these programs are propaganda and baloney, underwritten by corporations to keep them from being pilloried in social media by uninformed social-justice zealots. The study can be found in Vol. 16, No. 2, of the Journal and is titled, "The Social Responsibility of Business Is not Social Responsibility: Assume That There Are No Angels and Allow the Free Market's Touch of Heaven."
Anyway, as with most conferences, whether held by a nonprofit or a corporation, the Alliance conference was dripping with buzzwords and clichés. For example, to quote from the agenda:
- Throughout the Summit, we will be applying Liberating Structures, facilitation techniques that stimulate critical conversations and liberate the full potential of any group, from the front line to the C-suite.
- At various points during the morning we'll split off into partners and small groups to draw out insights and collectively build on one another's answers to questions like, "How do we invest in success factors," and "If you were 10x bolder, what would you do differently?"
- In a "fishbowl" format, we'll take a hard look at issues that organizational leadership face today, including stakeholder diversity initiatives, workforce development, and change management.
- In large and small group discussions we'll change the lenses we use to envision a roadmap to success. What are the opposing strategies we need to pursue simultaneously, such as making it safe to take bolder risks? How can a plan to produce the worst possible results lead us to new insights for meaningful transformation?
- Digital transformation is a mindset shift and a culture change. In large groups and table breakouts we will delve into the process of building conceptual bridges with partners, and creating a powerful model for innovation across diverse stakeholders.
This gobbledygook makes me want to climb to the top of the waterfall and jump off.