The Rude Sector

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 23rd, 2009 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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When I started blogging, I was told it was ok to be provocative and controversial and I was prepared for flak and feedback. But I am not going for controversy or provocation here; here, I’m venting. Numerous recent experiences have led me to conclude that the nonprofit sector that I truly love has become down-right rude. I’ve got a collection of experiences to whine about, but I’ll share two recent ones with you that painfully contrast our sector with the for-profit world.

I was invited to give a talk—for free—to a group of executive directors of nonprofits located in a specific geographic region. Not a problem. So what if when they first invited me I was told the event was at a location that was no more than a 40 minute round-trip for me but in the end they held the event at a location that was a 40 minute drive—each way. No biggie! I’m used to driving. And I was being a good collaborator.

No problem that despite sending me directions to the location three times, not one of them indicated that the one road leading to the location was under construction and there was a massive detour. Ok, it was a little bit of a problem, and a little bit more when once I got to the physical location there was only one sign at the entrance to the parking lot and it pointed at three different buildings. After that, no signage. So, I had to keep asking and asking, but eventually I got there.

But once I arrived at my destination, I assumed all would be good. Hah! I was warmly greeted at the “registration” desk. That was nice. But the executive director of the organization who invited me to speak NEVER came over and said hello, pleased you are here, thank you, etc. NOTHING! He was too busy yucking it up with his board member who he was introducing to this group of executive directors of his member organizations. (I won’t even go into the HUGE conflict of interest this presented, as I’ve only touched on the tip of the iceberg. Besides, I am talking about rudeness here, not conflicts of interest.) I follow his board member’s little talk; I’m nicely introduced by the leader of the meeting, and I start talking. I’m in the middle of a sentence when the executive director and his buddy get up, walk behind me and the executive director says, in booming voice, to the audience, not to me, “Got to leave. Have another appointment to get to.”

Could it get any worse? You bet. At any given time, of the approximately 25 people in the room, there were at least two people texting on their phones (and frequently there were more than two). And those two people were texting fairly consistently throughout my talk. Now, let me be clear: there was not one executive director in that room who worked at an organization with a life and death mission. Not one executive director texted and immediately left the room because s/he had just been informed of some emergency situation that had developed back at his/her organization or in her/his personal life. No, life went on as usual: phone would go down for a few minutes, then be picked back up, text/email sent, down, back up, etc. A few did try to “hide” it under the table, but come on! Others made no pretext of hiding.

Yesterday was not a first or only occurrence. What I experienced yesterday is all too commonplace at meetings—formal, informal, big, small, etc. And, quite honestly, I think it among the rudest things people can do. But I was comforting myself by thinking that this was not a phenomenon unique to the nonprofit sector; it crosses the sector.

And then I attended a meeting of 15 leaders, where I was the only nonprofit person at the table. The other 14, of whom all but one was male, were CEOs, vice-presidents and managing partners of some of the biggest, well-known companies, banks and law firms in this region. And you know what? Only one even put his phone on the table, and he had it in the flip-case, so he couldn’t even see the screen. Not one of them pulled a phone out once during the 90 minute program. Not one text or email was sent.

My bet is that if I asked the group of executive directors at the meeting if they have a core value at their organization that addresses the concept of “respect,” 100% of those who have explicit core values would say yes. Being respectful of all is important to them, they would say. But as I know all too well, too many organizations reserve their core values for their clients, failing to apply them to their entire community of stakeholders—including invited guests.

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