Symptoms of a Vanity Nonprofit
- The quality or condition of being vain.
- Excessive pride in one’s appearance or accomplishments; conceit.
- Lack of usefulness, worth, or effect; worthlessness.
The Idea is More Important than the Impact: I once heard the saying that a good slogan can stop progress for fifty years. For the vanity nonprofit, the power of the agency is in the idea or slogan rather than the actually delivering value to clients that are served. In a vanity nonprofit the talk of doing great things is the substitute for the more difficult work of demonstrating great things.Several months ago I was meeting informally with a nonprofit leader who, in the course of our conversation used the term vanity in describing a nonprofit. At its most basic level, we concluded that a “vanity nonprofit” is an organization that is driven by the ego of a single person (often the founder and handpicked board) and whose programs offer little social return to the community. However, as the conversation with my nonprofit colleague unfolded, a broader portrait of a vanity nonprofit began to emerge in our thinking. Wanting to test the profile and, assuming others had put thought into the concept, I turned to Google. Yet a search for the term “vanity nonprofit” yielded surprisingly few results. In this short article (and at the risk of creating an overgeneralized label), I want to outline the contours of a vanity nonprofit. While I generally try to stay strengths-based in my writings, this post examines the risk factors undermine the health an ego-centered nonprofit organization.
• Groupthink is the practice of the Board: Perhaps one of the most marked characteristics of a vanity nonprofit is the groupthink of its board. Groupthink occurs when directors offer allegiance to the idea or the individual (i.e., the founder) rather than allegiance to the organization. The organization suffers with staff members often being valued as long as they reflect the groupthink of the board.
• Status Quo Trumps Strategy: A third characteristic of a vanity nonprofit is that preserving the status quo becomes the prime directive. Strategy and strategic planning is belittled or, conversely, if a “strategic” plan is written, it simply perpetuates small or incremental thinking. After all, “being strategic is not the point when we are doing good work. Right?”
• Denial of Reality: A fourth characteristic of a vanity organization is that when confronted by reality, such as declining finances, lack of growth or staff turnover, then the organization’s leadership looks the other way. It reminds me of the scene from that classic movie, the Princess Bride when Miracle Max has to confront reality… Don’t remember? Take 4 minutes here.
These characteristics , and there are undoubtably others, paint the portrait of a vanity nonprofit. Unfortunately these attributes conspire to create a nonprofit that, at its best, produces a mediocre social return related to the time, money and human capital investments in the agency. At its worse, a vanity nonprofit is a breeding ground for weak leadership, high employee turnover, and mismanagement.
Confronting vanity takes courage that, at times, is beyond the reach of some nonprofit leaders. In such an organization, an Executive Director or insightful board member may quit rather than confront. Or if confronted, leadership may deny or justify, or even retaliate. When this occurs, I believe that it is the responsibility of those on the outside, funders, community partners, and others affiliated with the organization to boldly call out the dysfunction of vanity. Rather than letting such organizations slowly burn out or, worse, end up “above the fold of the morning news” because of accidental or intentional mismanagement, it would be far better to control the descent or facilitate the turn around of a vanity nonprofit. Indeed, it is my opinion, that if turnaround is not possible then failure before tragedy is a preferable option in the case of a vanity nonprofit.
In this post, I am not suggesting that all ineffective nonprofits are vanity nonprofits. Nor am I suggesting that small nonprofits struggling to gain a solid foundation or a more mature nonprofit in need of strategy reinvention are in it for vanity. What I am suggesting is that we need a working definition for those nonprofits that embody a the values and ego of a person rather than the forward thinking concern for a community served. If we can name it, perhaps we would all be better positioned to prevent it.
Photo Credit: Rudy and Peter Skitterians