I recently received a question from a smart, young emerging leader for whom I see only great things. Her question: Do you think that the nonprofit and foundations community has gotten into a habit of congratulating itself at conferences, symposiums, and other events? I was immediately reminded of a foundation’s advertisement that runs only at certain times of year. The advertisement intentionally makes it sound as if the foundation is responsible for the accomplishments of the nonprofits it funds, and that it is directly helping the homeless, providing the arts education, doing the youth development, etc. It is a very misleading ad, for anyone who doesn’t know the foundation, but, I am sure, quite successful in raising money—its whole purpose.
But that is not where this young, emerging leader was going with her question. Just having returned from a conference, she was reflecting on the amount of self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing and self-praising that went on at this conference and so many of the others which she has recently attended. She is seeing too much “bow-taking” for her own comfort. And I am right there with her, for several reasons.
First, for those working at nonprofits and foundations, it is our job to do the work that we do. Should we really be patting ourselves on our backs? Recently, I was on a panel talking about strategic planning; a women in the audience asked whether staff who participate in the planning process by attending retreats or focus groups or any special meetings related to the process should be thanked in some way. Before a panelist could respond, a man in the audience harrumphed and said, “It’s part of their job.” The women told me later that she was quite offended by both the tone and content of his response. Here, too, I concur: just because something is part of a person’s job doesn’t mean she can’t be thanked for doing it, doing it well, doing it with a little extra something. But there is a huge difference between being thanked by a supervisor or a colleague and thanking oneself! Just to be clear, my complaint here is not about giving praise, as there is a great need for praise, thanks and the giving of kudos—even when it is part of a person’s job; but it should come from others, not from oneself, and unless so advertised, self-congratulations should not be the focus of educational gatherings.
We who work in the nonprofit sector—be it as a funder or as one who receives the funding—do so, for the most part, by choice and because we love the mission for which we work. Our thanks are seeing that mission fulfilled. Should we be extending self-congratulations more than the for-profit employee should thank herself for receiving her paycheck every two weeks?
Second, it is very different to share how you are being successful than to share the simple fact that you are successful. And this is the difference that my young colleague is seeing. I stopped going to conferences a long time ago unless it was necessary for political reasons or I knew I would learn about the how and why of things. Hearing others tell me how great they are, how much good work they do, how successful they are, without being able to give me the data that show a) how they know they are great and successful and b) how their model of doing things leads to greater success than another model is a waste of serious people’s time and doesn’t advance the work of the sector one iota.
Third, as my young colleague pointed out, it is a limited, at best, and closed, at worst, circle that attend these events to sing their own praises. These gatherings are for senior managers and leaders and not for the on-the ground service deliverer who is back “in the trenches” making sure all that good work happens.
It is, no doubt, that underpaid, undervalued, underappreciated direct service worker who really deserves the praise and kudos and who, most likely, gets it all too infrequently. Rather than spend all the money on convening a symposium to self-aggrandize or attending a conference to say how good you are, perhaps more money and professional development ought be showered on those who do the work that allows for the senior leaders to heap themselves with praise?
As my young friend said, if the purpose of our sector is to serve the underserved and enrich our communities, and we do so most often with money gotten in exchange for that promise of serving the underserved and enriching our communities, ought we not be spending money on making that the reality? Spending money to share the research that shows how we can be (more) successful at doing so? Spending money to make us all be better at doing good in the future rather than congratulating ourselves for (theoretical) good done in the past?
It was her closing comment that really hits the nail on the head, and so I will close with her words: “I understand the value from a fundraising or marketing perspective, but to me it’s getting a bit obscene and at the least, distracting—well, let’s be honest—just stupid and definitely diametrically opposed to the values we purport.”
Just where did we leave those values?