Nine Nonprofit Trends that Need to Die

Nine nonprofit trends that need to go. Some are nonprofit sacred cows that we need to release into the wilderness.

Nine Nonprofit Trends that Need to Die
8 mins read

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.


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.

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Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

36 thoughts on “Nine Nonprofit Trends that Need to Die

  1. 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!

  2. Waiting for the challenges of collective impact. Where can I see this when it does – on your blog? Thank you.

  3. 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.

    1. HeeHee I know what you mean. I remember spending days on a funder report each year that contributed peanuts to our agency. I would not have been disappointed had they not renewed the grant.

    2. My favorite was a local bank offering community grants of $500-$1000. They required an audited financial statement. We’re a very small, all-volunteer (yea, one of those) gropp. So we did what we usually do – contact local professionals to see if someone was willing to help out pro bono, something that had been very successful for us in the past. We were literally laughed at, since it turns out that the typical fee for such a report is $4,000! Needless to say, we didn’t apply for one of those grants. lol

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

      1. Haha, Brett, I feel you need to go around in green in South Korea proclaiming a st patricks day shirt ideas (Tera) of green!

  6. 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?

  7. 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??

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.)

  12. 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!!

  13. 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.

  14. I am new to Blue Avacado but old to the non-profit world. As a Director of Development for a non-profit community based hospice I totally agree all of your “need to die trends”! So perfectly put and very fun! Thank you for making my day!

  15. I agree with most of that, especially wasting money and ignoring local talent by hiring consultants with cookie-cutter solutions.

    I’d never heard of ignite but I was doing that in the 80s so it’s not exactly novel.

    And I’ll be making a batch of dairy-free vegan cupcakes today to take to a meeting 🙂

  16. Common Grant Applications — should just slip into the ether and never be seen again. Either they are used by less than thoughtful funders who don’t read half of the required information (so much required! — and so little relevance!) Or they are used by funders who also need additional information that turns out to be already in the application — but the phrasing is different or simply in a different order.
    One size does not fit all and Common Grant Applications make my job uncommonly complex.

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  17. The only thing missing from this list are 24 hour Giving Days! So many months and weeks of prep and staff time for a small return. Many of the gifts that do come in would anyway.

  18. I would love to see and end to the trend of only buying “refurbished computers because they are cheaper”. I did a ROI for my ED and proved in the long run it was “cheaper” to buy a new computer that would last several years instead of buying the refurbished ones which last about a year and a half. However when I have to buy one they always go for the lower sticker price of the refurbished ones. They never consider the hours and hours I have spent babying a finicky old computer to work. Ah well, back to my babying.

  19. Thank you for calling out “Innovation”. It has been crushing in education where no new idea is given long enough to prove itself. Even when it does, the money wants to follow something new and the previous great idea dies from lack of funding.

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