Public recognition vs. Public service

In my consulting life, I’ve helped a bunch of startup nonprofits get started.  But that’s also one of the jobs I turn down…a lot.  I have a hard time working for folks I don’t believe in, and I see far, far too many individuals who want to start their very own nonprofit instead of taking an entry-level job and working their way up in established organizations.

A rather good article by Amy Schiller at The Baffler made me think a little bit more deeply about what’s happening in those situations.

She writes about the rise (and foibles) of “philanthro-capitalists” – paralleling my ambitious future founders in naiveté and hubris.  The thing I am intensely interested in is the strong desire to get individual recognition – for being a founder, for being a savior, for being a hero who is smarter that everyone who has come before and lo, has fixed our problems.

It strikes me as a cultural psychology problem.

Might be related to the trophies we toss around like candy with children these days, but I think it’s a little deeper than overly inflated self-esteem…the hubris seems a little more aggressive than that.  For the philanthro-capitalists, it feel like a flavor of narcissism mixed with internalized objectivism: these are folks who are expert at deflecting anything that might force them to confront a less than perfect sense of self, and they have plenty of evidence to back up their (often unspoken) belief that all of their money is proof that they are smarter, stronger, superior human beings.  For the nonprofit founders, there’s a cohort of folks who would absolutely fit into that mold if they had more money of their own, so instead they are doing the socially acceptable thing: collecting funds from others to fuel their superiority.

These are folks who need the world to recognize and applaud their genius and good-deed-doing.  They do these things with no more heart than you’ve got…but what they do have is a testimonial!

And here, of course, is where I’m conflicted.  In the fundraising world, you can’t turn away donors just because they want recognition.  In fact, it seems like a very reasonable thing to offer in appreciation of a huge gift.  We’ve had a hand in creating this monster.  And now, the recognition narrative folks are creating for themselves has gotten out of hand.

Teen girl raises record money for walk-a-thon.  High schooler starts new organization to collect teddybears for disaster victims.  College roommates start new club to read with kids at inner city school.  The positive reinforcement keeps ratcheting up…and it’s not much of a news story to say “college student volunteers for existing literacy program and is really well liked by 2 students a year, though the long term benefit won’t be known for years.”  Of course kids want to start their own thing.

But when we get to the real world…first, there’s the scope of things.  Amy Schillman’s article talks about a guy who is very impressed with himself that he’s going to raise $1 billion over the next few years to “fix” public education.  But the NYC school budget alone is $22 billion each year.  Throwing a billion dollars at public education isn’t going to make a significant ripple…and it’s not like this guy has a game-changing idea, just ambition and a desire to critique, and no immersion in the world he plans to make waves in.  He’s got just enough knowledge and just enough money to be really dangerous; no one believes he’ll save the world (except him).

But let’s go back to that desire to critique for a minute – I was also struck by a recent editorial in the times: Young Minds in Critical Condition, from Michael Roth.  I think this, a system that rewards our young scholars for being critical of texts/existing ideas but places a much lesser value on creative solutions (of any caliber), is a big factor here.  My prospective founders are great at describing why there’s a need for their new service to the community by highlighting the failure of existing institutions.  But rarely, if pressed, can they come up with questions they might ask to determine WHY those failures have come to pass – i.e., why will your approach work where others have failed?  And their solutions are inevitably less robust than their ability to point out problems.  There is a relationship here with the way we praise the ability to find flaws in a text or system, as if pointing out a hole and mapping its contours is all one needs to be able to fill it.

There’s a difference between wanting to fix a problem and wanting to be the person who fixes the problem.  I encourage anyone thinking about starting a nonprofit to do some soul searching to make sure they know why they’re doing it…and for those of us in fundraising, perhaps we need to do a better job of rewarding meaningful support instead of creating addictions to a heroic narrative.  (You’ll recall – there’s a problem with hubris…its presence always heralds a fall…)

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