One of the great things about our sector is how innovative it is. There are smart, talented, socially-conscious people—nonprofit staff, funders, researchers, boards, donors, volunteers. We come up with amazing ideas all the time. In the past few years we’ve had 40 Developmental Assets, and 21st Century Skills. We’ve had evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence. We have strategic planning, then strategic thinking. We have Collective Impact and Youth Program Quality Initiative. We have STEM. We have online learning. Some trends, like the importance of parental engagement in students’ academic performance, die and then resurface. I call them “Zombie Trends.” Now the latest trend is “We need to send more nonprofit staff to Hawaii so they can relax and recharge!”
All right, fine, that last one may not be an actual trend, though maybe it should be.
Lately, however, I’ve been encountering among my peers more and more frustration with funders’ seeming obsession with innovation. An ED friend called it the Bright Shiny Object Syndrome (BSOS), this apparent inclination to drop everything and zoom in on the newest, sexiest concept to support, with sometimes negative consequences. The focus on early learning, for example, while important, has affected funding for youth programs, and the shift to collective impact has not always been positive (see “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile“).
Look, innovation is great, and lots of new models and practices in our field are awesome. We should always be trying out new concepts and shifting paradigms and harvesting synergy and stuff. The frustration comes when it seems like some funders (and even nonprofits) are seeking a magic bullet, a panacea, a Holy Grail, a McRib to all of society’s problems, and they follow this quest at cost of good programs and organizations. A program officer, for example, once told me his influential foundation was no longer funding direct service programs in order to focus more on systems work, and thus would not be able to support my nonprofit’s proven after-school program that serves low-income kids, though they had supported similar programs in the past. This was one of the few times I went back to my office and broke into the emergency minibar in my cubicle.
At some point innovation becomes like the hundreds of weight-loss fads we have had: The grapefruit diet, the watermelon diet, the cavemen diet, the lemonade diet, the blood type diet, the hCG hormone diet, the Atkins diet, the cotton ball diet, the apple cider vinegar diet, the baby food diet, etc. Every week there’s some new diet. Our society’s unrealistic expectations of body image is a topic for another day. The point here is that many people are trying to lose weight, and many are resorting to some ridiculous and occasionally harmful “innovations.” Some may succeed with these crazy diets, but the majority fail, because when it comes to healthy body weight, it comes down to two factors: sensible eating and exercise. It may be unfair to parallel innovations in the nonprofit sector with ridiculous dieting fads, but that is often what it feels like to us on the ground.
While we must continue to seek innovation, we cannot ignore these critical factors below. These unsexy, overlooked critical factors. They are the “sensible eating and exercise” of social justice and we will always have a need for them:
What other things am I missing? These factors above are not “innovative” and cutting edge. Like a balanced diet and regular exercise, they are not new and sexy. But they are what are driving the work, and they need to be appreciated and supported. While we should continue to explore and try new things and change the way we do stuff from time to time, these essential factors are not going to be obsolete anytime soon. If anything, they will continue to be more and more important as our society and world become more populated and complex. They must be funded simultaneously and consistently.
As a final note, we all need to appreciate the funders who do understand the importance of supporting these nonsexy elements of our work. This week call or email your funders who are funding general operating, capacity building, leadership, volunteer management, staff development, tried-and-true programming, or other boring, non-innovative stuff and thank them. Chances are, they don’t hear enough of that (See “General operating funds, admin expenses, and why we nonprofits are our own worst enemies.”)
Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps. Known for his irreverent sense of humor, Vu's work has been featured at Nonprofit Quarterly, GuideStar's blog, Chronicle of Philanthropy, as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com, formerly nonprofitwithballs.com.
This piece was originally published at Vu Le's blog, NonprofitAF.com.