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.

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