Tag Archives: dan palotta

The Palotta Problem

uncharitableIf I have a good sense of who reads my blog, you’re likely familiar with Dan Palotta, notable in the nonprofit world for having raised significant amounts of money running the Aids Rides and Breast Cancer walks.  More recently, he’s become a outspoken and controversial crusader for reform in the sector.  He did a much-viewed Ted talk, and he’s written a few books outlining his case that “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”. And he keynoted the recent NTEN conference in Minneapolis.

Palotta’s claim is that nonprofits, in general, are their own worst enemies. By operating from a puritanical, self-sacrificing ethic that says that we can’t pay ourselves as well as for profit companies do, and we can’t invest heavily in marketing and infrastructure, instead prioritizing that every penny go to our program work, we are dramatically ineffective. He is advocating for a revolution against our own operating assumptions and the Charity Navigators, tax codes and foundations that are set up to enforce this status quo.

His message resonates. I watched his Ted talk, and then his NTEN plenary, and tears welled in my eyes on both occasions   They were tears of frustration, with an undercurrent of outrage.  I doubt very seriously that my reaction was very different from that of the other 1500 people in the room.  We are all tired of the constant struggle to do more with much less, while we watch entertainers, athletes and corporate CEOs pocket millions. Or billions.  And this is not about our salaries.  It’s about the dramatic needs of the populations we serve; people who are ransacked by poverty and/or disease. Should reality TV stars be pocketing more than most NPOs put annually toward eradicating colortectal cancer or providing legal assistance to the poor?

But, as I said, Palotta is a controversial figure, and the reactions to him are extreme to the point of visceral.  Even among his most ardent supporters, there’s a bit of criticism.  The key critical threads I heard from my NTEN peers were distrust of the implied argument that the corporate model is good, and frustration that a person who did well financially running charities is up there being so critical of our self-sacrifices.  In fact, since his nonprofit went under amid a storm of criticism about his overhead ratio.  Reports are that it was as much as 57% (depending on how much the reporter dislikes Palotta, apparently). That’s between 17% and 42% more than what nonprofits are told to shoot for, and are assessed against. But the amount of money he raised for his causes was ten times that of any similar efforts, and it does dramatically illustrate his point. How much opportunity to raise money is lost by our requirement that we operate with so little staff and resources?

I’m sold on a lot of Dan Palotta’s arguments. I don’t think that NPO’s have to emulate corporations, but they should have equal opportunity to avail themselves of the business tactics, and be measured by how effective they are, not how stingy. But I still can’t rally behind Dan Palotta as the leader for this cause.  It’s one thing to acknowledge that the nature of the “do-gooder” is one of austerity and self-sacrifice. It’s another to criticize it. Because, while most of us can recognize the disadvantages that our nature tends towards, we’re proud of that nature. It’s not as much a bad business orientation as it is a core ethical life view. The firm belief that relieving the suffering of others is of greater personal satisfaction and value than any financial reward pretty much fuels our sector. So standing on a stage and chastising us for not being more competitive, more greedy, and more self-serving, no matter how correct the hypothesis, primarily offends the audience.

By putting this criticism front and center, rather than acknowledging the good intentions and working with us to balance them with a more aggressive business approach, Palotta is undermining his own efforts. The leader who is going to break these institutional assumptions is one who will appreciate the heart of the charity worker, not one who – despite their good intentions – denigrates us. I applaud Palotta for raising a lot of awareness. But I’m still waiting to meet the people who will represent us in this battle. Palotta has raised the flag, but I’m not convinced that he’s our bannerman.

NTEN, NTC And Technology

The Nonprofit Technology Conference was held in snowy Minneapolis this year and, as usual, a good time was had by all, despite some painful plane delays and dramatic turnover in the NTEN staff. The choice of Dan Palotta as keynoter was, in many ways, a great one, not because he had much to say to the nptech community in particular, but because what he has to say is thought-provoking and controversial. At a time when NTEN, itself, is going through a big period of change, it was appropriate to take on the dialogue about the nonprofit sector as a whole.

From my less-trendy-social-media,-more-tech perspective, the conference had some high points. Matt Eshleman led a very practical and informative session on IT governance , taking a wonky topic and bringing it down to earth. And I sat on a fairly heated panel debating the role of IT, where the four of us mostly agreed that the chief technologist needs to be at the management level, but had a variety of ideas about what the role entailed. The conversation got a bit wild when we got to IT compensation, with all four panelists vying for the mic and three of four of the audience jumping up as well. It’s clear that while we mostly challenge Palotta a bit and do think that working for a mission justifies making a little less than our for-profit peers, we need to remain competitive in order to attract and maintain good technologists. Irrespective of IT, we can’t let people who do inspiring work in our sector go on to live in poverty or on the streets – their contributions are worthy of more than just respect.

All that said, the technical sessions this year, once again, were hard to tease of of the huge array of social media and Web offerings. Despite hard work curating the IT Staff track, Online Fundraising and Facebook strategy sessions still made the NTEN cut for the IT Staff track, where they don’t belong. I’m told that this is because some presenters insist that IT Staff is the audience that they want to reach, but that doesn’t explain to me why it belongs in the track. The track should adhere to the interests of the group that it’s named for.  If the IT Staff session draws a majority of communications or fundraising staff, well, it wasn’t an IT Staff session . Fail!

Here’s the challenge. It’s twofold. Lindsay Martin-Bilbrey, NTEN’s Program Director, tells me that they receive five times as many submissions for the Communications track as they do for the IT Staff track. And the IT Staff submissions are often multiple sessions by the same people. I think this is a cultural issue, and a bit of a catch-22. IT Staff are generally not outgoing people, in the way that Communications staff are. We’re inwardly-focused, and generally not comfortable presenting to crowds. There are exceptions, like me, Matt and Donny, but we aren’t the norm. So Lyndsay and I agree that we need to do something to support and engage the millions of techs working at NPOs. The Communications staff don’t have us outnumbered. But it’s going to take some intervening.

So I’m here to intervene. If you do tech work at a nonprofit, and you have expertise in the current trends, such as Voice Over IP telephony, Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, Software As A Service, Bring Your Own Device, online backup, cloud, and dashboards, we need sessions on all of these topics at 14NTC. It’s not enough to just show up; I’m asking you to submit a session. If you want help preparing it, coaching on presenting, or a strong Co-Presenter, I’ll help with that or help arrange it. The truth is that NTEN can’t address the comm/tech imbalance without the explicit help of the npTECH community. So let’s do our part, and keep the tech in nonprofit technology.