The Nonprofit Paradox: Is the road to hell really paved with good intentions?

In a moment, I’m going to share with you a very enlightening article that I found in the Summer 2010 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled THE NONPROFIT PARADOX, written by David LaPiana. In my own article on the same topic, I give feedback on what’s good, what’s not, and what nuts-and-bolts practices can be adopted to make things better. Here, David LaPiana takes a deeper look at the mechanics of the dysfunction itself. For example, the numerous ironies and pitfalls of Mission Overdrive – how dogged commitment to social values may blind people to their own faults, entitle them to a pass on morals, or inadvertently have them practicing the very abuses they criticize, in a backwards sense, getting way too close to their work.

In his examination of “ego”, author Eckart Tolle talks about this same phenomenon among activists – how their unconscious relationship with enemies and conflict usually creates enemies and conflict, even within their own organization. So is it true? Is the road to hell really paved with good intentions, as the saying goes? And what can we do about it? I believe Vietnam War survivor and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers a possible answer. He was asked in an interview to talk about the role of anger in fueling activism to which he replied:

“The energy of anger may be a source of energy.  But when you use anger as energy, there may be danger – because when you are angry, you are not lucid…  You might do things that can be very destructive.  That is why it is better to use other forms of energy like the energy of compassion, the energy of understanding.”

Naturally, as a Buddhist, he also talks at length about mindfulness.  I can hear the skeptics now – “Wait, what?  Compassion, understanding, mindfulness?  -as agents of change?  -to run an organization?”  Um…  yeah, why not?  We already have all of this contradiction.  I wouldn’t mind another twist, especially if it was one that might work in our favor.  But don’t take it from just me.  Try the President of a national firm that focuses on improving leadership in the social sector.  David LaPiana, himself, cites ‘awareness’ as a sufficient start to countering the effects of the nonprofit paradox.

Read his article (pdf) in full and for free here.

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