Is there something wrong with all of us?
Harvard Business Review's resident nonprofit provocateur, Dan Pallotta, asks this question about the profession in his latest blog post, "Nonprofit Pathology." I urge you to read the whole post, but here's an excerpt:
"Maybe people get into the compassion business full-time not because they're more compassionate than others but because they're codependent. […] I see people who wear the debilitating lack of resources in their organization like a badge of honor, despite the fact that the deficiency undermines their ability to impact the community problem they are working on. I see people moving from one nonprofit to another, from one cause to another, seemingly more addicted to 'the struggle' than passionate about solving any particular social ill. […] And while they lament it, they have no commitment to doing anything about it. There's a sense of pathological contentment."
Ouch. That's a harsh diagnosis, but it rings true. When good intentions run aground time after time, frustration bleeds into martyrdom, and you can recognize it from a mile away. After hearing "we have to do more with less" enough, it begins to sound more like an excuse than a call to action. I don't think Pallotta means to indict an entire sector of professionals (well, maybe he does), but rather I think he means to point out that too many nonprofit professionals take the easy way out, lamenting the system rather than trying to fix it.
Philanthropic nonprofit work and association management have their similarities, of course, but the two attract a fundamentally different kind of worker that leads to a different strain of "pathology" in associations. Philanthropic organizations draw the bleeding hearts, workers who are stirred by the challenge of direct social or environmental change. Association work is more indirect; associations make the world a better place, too, but they do it by helping other people (doctors, builders, scientists, whoever) be better at what they do. And so association management is often less a profession that is sought out than one that people "fall into."
Meanwhile, associations have a steady pool of customers (members) to a degree that far exceeds any other type of business, for-profit or nonprofit. When you can rest easy in knowing that 80 percent of your customers will give you money every year, that's a comfortable, built-in audience.
What do you get when you put that together with a large pool of professionals who arrived in their jobs by chance? Instead of a workforce driven by a core purpose or an innate will to change the world, you get a workforce that discovers, likes, and comes to depend on the comfort of the status quo. And it goes without saying that comfort breeds complacency. That's the association pathology. We're codependent, too. We need members so we can feel needed.
I've read arguments that the struggle to change is magnified or somehow unique to associations, and generally I chalk that up more to overall human nature. We all hate change. But I can see how the nature of associations makes change an uphill battle. The chips are stacked against us by the inherent structure of the membership model, which is only reinforced by the workforce it engenders.
At the Great Ideas Conference last month, I listened to Shelly Alcorn's summary of her lengthy study of association executives' visions of the future. Her handout listed a series of "provocative proposals," phrased as "what if" questions, that emerged consistently in her study. More than one of them focused on transforming association management into a profession that is sought after rather than fallen into. If we're ever going to break our dependency on membership as we know it, that's going to be a key step.