Nine Nonprofit Trends that Need to Die

Vu Le of the Rainier Valley Corps, calls out some of the most annoying nonprofit trends. We would add the use of word clouds (see left).

1. Ignite-style presentations AKA "presentation by karaoke"

"Ignite" involves a five-minute Powerpoint presentation with 20 slides, where the slides advance themselves every 15 seconds. It cuts off long-winded people, and it's kind of fun to see how speakers match up their speech with the slides. When done right, and used mostly for humorous and easy-to-understand stuff, it can be great.

But I've seen it too often used for novelty's sake to explain difficult nonprofit concepts or missions, in which case it becomes "presentation by karaoke," underestimates . . . the intelligence of the audience, wastes endless hours of speakers’ time in preparation, and makes me want to punch the event organizer in the neck. I once attended an event feature five of these short presentations. People had a great time -- "Ooh, that lightbulb graphic appeared JUST when she said 'I had an idea!' That's so, like, awesome!" -- but by the end of the night, no one in the audience remembered anything the speakers said.

2. Corporate one-day volunteer or teambuilding projects

This is when a business sends like a bazillion workers to a nonprofit for a day to help it paint walls or make sandwiches or read to kids or darn socks for veterans or whatever. Again, when done right, it can be a great partnership. And a great photo-op for everyone. But usually the business people don’t realize how much time it costs us nonprofit to coordinate this. Often, the business folks leave feeling like heroes, and we end up cleaning up the mess and then we never see them again.

Says one of my colleagues, "Your corporate image does not trump our need to get tasks done. Several corporate volunteer projects have been horrible because the employees treat it like a day off and goof off/leave early/drink at lunch." Hey corporations, if you want to help, volunteer throughout the year with "unsexy" stuff like fundraising and data entry.

3. Popularity contest "grants"

Really, corporations, you’re going to award money to the organizations that get the most "likes" or votes? Yup, it’s a brilliant marketing technique: The grantor "helps" the community, while getting lots and lots of publicity with very little effort.

How about you actually do the right thing by having an equitable selection process and stop making us nonprofits shill for you? We have stuff to do. This reminds me of a rapper who promised to donate a buck to starving kids for each "like" his Facebook page receives. Ew! Using hungry kids to boost your image is despicable, dude. Let’s agree to not participate in these types of schemes.

4. Crowdfunding

Look, I’m not against novel ways of diversifying our revenue sources. But crowdfunding is getting touted as some sort of miracle elixir that will solve all our fiscal ailments. Psychic-crystal-ball it’s not. It only works for certain types of organizations and missions and projects.

But because it's so shiny, it’s "blah blah crowdfunding this" and "blah blah crowdfunding that" and "my cousin was an ED of an org that was in trouble, and they tried crowdsourcing, and within three days, they raised $5 billion, and also her cholesterol level went down and her acne cleared up!" as if it were so easy. We all know effective fundraising takes time and resource and at least one reputable psychic, so crowdfunding is just one more tool in our toolbox, not some sort of panacea. (All that said, I'll eventually be asking for crowdfunding donations when I launch my Nonprofit: The Musical project).

5. Hiring outside consultants and consulting firms instead of locals

For some reason, we seem to have this "outsider efficacy bias," where people from outside our organization, or city, or state, are more intelligent than the people inside. This is why Nonprofit: The Musical will have, as one of its characters, a consultant robot, whose only job is to repeat exactly what an internal staff or board member says; the difference is that the robot actually gets listened to. This is not a dis on consultants, since I do some consulting and thus technically am one. But it does get annoying, frequently insulting, and oftentimes ineffective. Think of local consultants before you start outsourcing. Chances are, they know the context and key players way better and can provide more effective solutions.

6. The obsession with millennials

All right, enough with the articles, blog posts, webinars, Youtube videos, tweets, infographics, and interpretive dances about millennials. Not that I have anything against our bright-eyed, optimistic, smart, technology-focused colleagues who love a good hot yoga session and taking pictures of their meals, but enough is enough.

There are other groups we also need to pay attention to, like the Boomers, who will be retiring and affecting the sector in various ways. And where are the infographics about the brilliant and talented Gen Xers, whom one of my colleagues calls "History’s latchkey kids"? (You can’t have "generous and sexy" without Gen X) Also, don't forget the vegan nonprofiteers, who are rapidly growing in number; are our meeting snacks changing to meet their needs?!

7. Marketing an org or project as "100% volunteer run"

This is very similar to the annoying and harmful habit of saying “100% of your donations go to programming.” We love volunteers, but being proud of something being "100% volunteer-run" is insulting to nonprofit professionals. As a colleague says: "Many orgs start this way but eventually for sustainability, paid staff is needed to scale, strengthen and survive. Even if the org is all-volunteer, tag lines like this devalue the often very underpaid staff that many nonprofits need to get all of their work done. Nonprofit staff deserves to get paid. Their work is plentiful and important."

8. Data, data, blah blah, data

As I explained in Weaponized data: How the obsession with data has been hurting marginalized communities, I love data, but the obsession with it is going dusty-books too far. Data by itself doesn't accomplish crap. I’ve seen too many funders investing in data and producing shiny reports that get read by no one because you need people to actually use the data, and if you don’t invest in people and organizations, your data is sitting on some shelf collecting dust bunnies, which just sounds cute, but it's not!

9. "Innovation"

Can we stop chasing "innovative" solutions? The obsession with "novel" solutions is like trying the various fad diets as opposed to the boring sensible-diet-and-exercise-routine. Innovation is great, but not when it's at the cost of tried-and-true. You know what's an example of something REALLY innovative? The Ford Foundation's recent shift to giving only general operating grants. Is this new and sexy? No. But will this allow more of Ford Foundation's grantees to focus on doing a better job? Hell yeah. Am I going to name my next kid “Darren” after the Foundation’s new president? Maybe.

So . . .

Of course, everything has its place. In the right context, and with moderation, and maybe some tequila, I wouldn't mind sitting through an Ignite presentation given by an outside consultant regarding quantitative data on innovative crowdfunding through Millennials.

There is a bunch of other trends that get on my nerves -- fakequity, for example; and an entire blog post is coming on the challenges with Collective Impact; and another post on stuff that are not trends but rather nonprofit sacred cows that we need to release into the wilderness -- but it's 1 am, and I need to sleep. Let me know if you agree or disagree with any of the trends above, and what other trends you see that make you want to break out into an angry ballad if you were in Nonprofit: The Musical.


Vu Le is executive director of the Rainier Valley Corps, a leadership development organization in Washington state. You can read more of Vu's work on his blog: Nonprofit with Balls. He may or may not have been seen leaving a tap dancing studio preparing for his part in Nonprofit: The Musical.

Comments (25)

  • I agree wholeheartedly Vu! I'm a 23-year veteran in the non-profit sector as a CFO (and a Gen-X'er), and every one of the items you point to has essentially been an unfortunate distraction from the real work community-base organizations are charged to do. Excellent article peppered with your usual good humour!

    Aug 27, 2015
  • Waiting for the challenges of collective impact. Where can I see this when it does - on your blog? Thank you.

    Aug 27, 2015
  • Love these - I'm ready for funders to stop requiring lengthy reports unless they are contributing large amounts. Much of the information often requested really has nothing to do with the mission of the organization or the purpose of the grant; for some reason they are just interested in knowing how far away from headquarters does the average board member live or an analysis of how many homeless shelter clients use food stamps each month and what is the average amount of food stamps they receive. Or they ask for loads of financial information THEN ask that the 990 (with all the same info) be attached. Okay, now I'm just venting.

    Aug 27, 2015
  • Can we stop with the disruption thing too (goes along with innovation) because really it just means that the foundation wants a tech solution for a problem that humans have. I am all about technology (my organization is tech heavy) in service to humans, not as some sort of panacea/placebo to everything. Have homelessness? Try tech, it's good for you! - yeah, right, not when tech is exacerbating the problem in the first place.

    Aug 27, 2015
  • No doubt. I can't take another article of handwringing over Millennials. Seriously, they will give money when they are older. The end.

    I would add "Viral Videos." I have had leadership here ask that we "make this video go viral." Clearly they have no idea how my GenX community of dog rescuers, drama/debate/chorus parents, and elderly relatives roll. I could maybe make an actual virus go viral, by accident or something, but videos? Nope.

    Aug 27, 2015
  • I love Point of Vu, but did you know you are spelling "Rainier" incorrectly?

    Aug 27, 2015
  • Thank you! Fixed.

    Aug 28, 2015
  • Vu, I want to audition for the part of Undertaker in "Nonprofit: The Musical". A couple of decades ago I worked at a community radio station and spent a third of my time on what most people call planned giving (I prefer legacy giving). And the staff, without my knowledge, had nick-named me The Undertaker. Can you believe that? Well, you seem to have seen it all so that's a redundant question.

    Now I know there are a lot of misunderstandings about legacy giving. And while not yet a nonprofit trend, some colleagues tout the fallacy of having 100% board participation in legacy giving as if this method of giving were not highly personal.

    Oh yeah, there is a lot of gallows humor too on the topic of legacy giving too. I never have to initiate the jokes. So, when and where are the auditions being held?

    Aug 27, 2015
  • Oh, how could you possibly have captured every trend that truly needs to die? Popularity grants are driving me crazy and the trend doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon as now we are in the Social Venture arena where we are asked to pitch in 5 minutes and audiences vote on our worthiness for funds. And while millennials are no less worthy of our attention than any other group, why are entire organizations salivating over their tastes and dollars? And can we please stop the trend that now only offers funding for professional development to people under the age of 30? If you've worked in nonprofits long enough you'll realize that there are wonderful and under appreciated folks of 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, need I go on, that could really use some support to go to a conference or attend a class. And, yes, to data fatigue - I feel like I need a PhD to understand the research into what I do every day - seems like the flip side of the technology coin. Thank you, Vu!!!!!!

    Aug 28, 2015
  • I'll add to the list the practice of setting a specified dollar amount as an organization's definition of "Major Gift," and then those donors automatically fall into the org's "Major Donor" program i.e. a major gift is $5,000 and above based on a formula or calculation per the data. It's time non-profits also view "major gift" in the context of the individual. This statistical definition of major gift ignores (and tragically misses) the donor who gives $150 or $500 and it is a major stretch gift at that level under their individual circumstances, but they stretch because they are passionate about the cause or issue. To the donor it's a "major gift" indeed, but not from the organization's view??

    Aug 28, 2015
  • Fantastic article. I always enjoy Point of Vu pieces -- informative and so funny. A couple of these points really resonated with me, especially the one about all the focus on millennials. KatieG. captured my feelings exactly ("They will give when they are older. The end.").

    As for "Nonprofit: The Musical" -- please write it! I would definitely buy a ticket, as would several other volunteers and staff with our organization. Our Director of Development suggests that you "syndicate" the production, then other nonprofits could put it on as a fundraiser. It could be interactive, like that show, "Late Night Catechism." Hurry. . . eager audiences await!

    Aug 28, 2015
  • Vu, you are brilliant. Yes, every single one of these trends needs to be retired or rethought. We just assume because someone is talking about them that they must be true, valid, interesting or important. Millennials are not the first or last generation to walk the planet and we should consider all age groups as deserving our attention and respect. Data is subject to change and some is more relevant than others (as we should have learned from all those years that we avoided eggs, butter, wine, coffee, and gluten). And don't get me started on popularity based fundraising. I hope never to have to create another 5 minute pitch that will be voted on by a room full of people who don't understand what we do or why we do it. THANK YOU.

    Aug 28, 2015
  • Very funny and so maddeningly on target. Thanks!

    Aug 28, 2015
  • Two thumbs up!

    Aug 29, 2015
  • Another trend that needs to go: Community Foundations that claim that where ever their donors choose to give constitutes community. I'm sorry, folks in India may need support but giving to distant parts of the world ain't helping anyone in our community.

    Aug 31, 2015
  • Vu, I couldn't agree more with Number 2. I am in the teambuilding business, and the trend of 'work projects at non-profits' is frustrating and sometimes maddening. Corporations have no idea how much time on the front end it takes to develop and plan and cost a project, then they 'change their minds' and decide not to do it after hours of work on the non-profit side (Its no wonder it takes them so long to return our calls.) And if by chance it does happen, it is all about what the corporation WANTS to do, not what the non-profit NEEDS them to do. I would love to have a conversation about how to make giving cash as 'heartfelt' as doing work, so we can all get on with our true missions.

    Sep 01, 2015
  • Can I please try out for the musical? Love the comment about the millennials...

    Sep 03, 2015
  • Nailed it! Thank you for saying what's been buzzing around in my brain.

    Sep 28, 2015
  • First, I'd buy a ticket to the review of the musical. Second, I've worked at various non-profits for a long time and everything you point out here is spot on. I'd love to add one myself... Find Something Disruptive. This goes to your point about innovation sometimes distracting from the tried-and-true. This directive puts so much pressure on an organization and simply sets people up to fail. No one planned the ice bucket challenge and no one really know why some things go viral (Pizza Rat anyone?) and why some things don't (thousands of incredibly moving and meaningful non-profit PSAs.)

    Sep 28, 2015
  • Loved this article!! Hiring outside consultants and consulting firms instead of locals was right on point. It personally drives me nuts where colleagues of mine seem to think that "there aren't prophets in our own land" so outside help is sought. What this brings about is someone without the relationships needed to see the detail. All too often these consultants are hired on an over inflated reputation (think about the movie "Easy A") then turn out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors in their delivery.
    Huge issue!!

    Nov 06, 2015
  • Thank you for finally speaking the truth about Popularity Contest grants! Please, how does an Arts organization truly compete for funds with a rape crisis center? It left a bad feeling all around.

    Nov 13, 2015
  • Bravo! Really...Bravo!

    May 18, 2016
  • Simply, APPLAUSE!

    Jun 02, 2016
  • Brilliant article love your wisdom and insight keep up the good work and thank you

    Aug 31, 2016
  • SUCH a PERFECT summary!! I wish I could "like" all the comments too!

    Sep 21, 2016

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