Why Seth Godin Is Wrong (Updated)

Online marketing guru Seth Godin takes aim at nonprofits in a widely-quoted blog post “The problem with non” today, a diatribe of sorts that repeats a meme that’s been active in American philanthropy circles for at least a decade: nonprofits are afraid of change.

And it’s true, of course – at least on the surface. Most organization, especially large ones, do not race to take risks. But Godin’s piece is both simplistic and under-reported. Sure, it’s easy to say – as he does – that “non-profits, in my experience, abhor change.” Yet in my experience, they hate a change a lot less than failure – and they also hate change less than vast swaths of the corporate world (Wall Street and big insurance leap to mind).

It’s dismissive at the extreme to lob this kind of question: “When was the last time you had an interaction with a non-profit (there’s that word again) that blew you away?” Besides, Godin’s “success” metrics are wacky:

Take a look at the top 100 twitter users in terms of followers. Remember, this is a free tool, one that people use to focus attention and galvanize action. What? None of them are non-profits. Not one as far as I can tell. Is the work you’re doing not important enough to follow, or is it (and I’m betting it is) paralysis in decision making in the face of change? Is there too much bureaucracy or too much fear to tell a compelling story in a transparent way?


If you spend any time reading marketing blogs, you’ll find thousands of case studies of small (and large) innovative businesses that are shaking things up and making things happen. And not enough of these stories are about non-profits. If your non-profit isn’t acting with as much energy and guts as it takes to get funded in Silicon Valley or featured on Digg, then you’re failing in your duty to make change.

Twitter followers? Digg counts? Pitching Silicon Valley VC’s? It doesn’t ring true. Sure, passion and the willingness to take risks matter – but I don’t think a simplistic techno-capitalist argument can be spread across the vastness of 501c3-land.

For one, I’m impressed every week by the work of nonprofits – work that does indeed, blow me away. And for another, there is some risk-taking out there – more and more capital directed toward experimentation – and some terrific advances in story-telling, organizing, fundraising, and activism. My book spent much 200 pages covering those stories. You want Twitter? Social change bloggers often dominate the serious discussion of social media’s impact.

This comment is particularly wrong-headed: “The only reason not to turn this over to hordes of crowds eager to help you is that it means giving up total control and bureaucracy.”

Undoubtedly, control and bureaucracy can be big problems with nonprofits, large and small. But does anyone now living believe that the most philanthropic nation in the history of the world should devolve its nonprofit and service sector into a crowd-sourced cyberlibertarian throw of the dice at utopia? Yes, $300 billion annually is less than 2% of GDP – but it’s a vital 2% for those who rely on the services and support that nonprofits provide.

I don’t – and I preach digital change to nonprofits every day. Change ain’t easy when the world keeps moving and you have the keep the lights on – ask the President.

Besides, nonprofits are way, way down the list of sectors that really abhor change. Wall Street, big insurance, government – now they really hate change. More nonprofits need to adapt, to experiment, to take risks, to embrace change. But they need to keep on providing services while they’re doing it.

I think the “non” in Seth’s post relates to its own currency frankly – it’s an old bromide that’s getting kinda stale.

UPDATE: Wow, lots of discussion in several interesting places. Let’s start with comments here. Seth responds to my post, and argues:

My point about VCs wasn’t that non profits should be raising money from them. It’s that we expect ‘real’ companies to be innovative risk takers, but somewhere along the way, the status quo for non profits has become to be boring.

And Seth’s basic point – that nonprofits accept a state of stasis too often (which I also agree with and have worked on for a decade) – won some positive comments, including Brad Rourke’s:

Seth’s description of the board meeting with the silent leaders felt eerily similar to meetings I have been in, where an uncomfortable proposition — perhaps as simple as “let’s eat our own dog food” — gets killed through inertia.

But others accused Seth of not tasting his own cooking – here’s Hildy Gottlieb:

I read the title and prepared to agree with Seth Godin on his post. Instead I laughed out loud. Why? Because Seth Godin is not on Twitter! He has a blog so he can blast out, but no way for readers to comment – no way for Mr. Godin to participate in the “social” part of social media.

And Sheva Nerad argued (persuasively, I think) that consumer marketing rules simply aren’t the same for nonprofits:

Godin’s rant about nonprofits completely ignores history of nonprofit institutions as petitioners as well as change agents. There is a different kind of risk taking involved when you’re marketing a luxury item, and social change is, alas, a luxury. NGOs have to be diplomats.

Further, says Kevin Williams, nonprofits (especially community-based organizations) have to adapt to survive, even if the pace isn’t always what we’d like it to be:

I work for a non profit and we embrace change. In face we have to in order to keep our advocates happy. The point that Mr. Godin missed is that non profits are constantly in the community talking and interacting with their advocates and donors. That’s where the real “change” happens.

Lots of other interesting comments – please read them and post your own. Elsewhere, some interesting commentary. At Beth Kanter’s place, there’s a great conversation around this – read all the comments and jump in – and here’s Beth’s take:

Change is hard for people and for people who work in nonprofits. Social media can also inspire timidness.  Seth’s painted a untrue picture of ALL nonprofits as deer frozen in the headlights. While there are many examples of nonprofits embracing social media and getting results with only a fraction of Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter followers – there are organizations that are not engaging.  If anything, Godin has got the attention of those who work in the nonprofit sector and are engaged in the social media conversation.  Whether or not that is only a small percentage of the nonprofit field or not remains to be seen.

Sean Stannard-Stockton did a special post on the controversy with lots of links, and takes the thoughtful middle road in judging the merits of the argument:

…we’ve come full circle. Tom, Beth and Seth are all right in my mind. Change is hard. Too many nonprofits (and philanthropists!) find change scary and by hunkering down instead of accepting uncertainty, they are wasting an opportunity to make a difference. Wasting an opportunity in the social sector means more people in poverty, fewer children with access to education, a quickly deteriorating environment. Seth is right to be pissed off.

But all is not lost! We are in the early stages of a technology and demographically driven Second Great Wave of Philanthropy. Books like Tom’s document the ways that more and more social change agents are getting comfortable with change and embracing new approaches.

Seth’s post was cranky, but he’s right. The work of nonprofits is too important for them to become paralyzed with fear.

Tom’s post was right as well. Everyone hates changes, not just nonprofits. And every day, more and more nonprofits are learning to overcome fear and more capital is being devoted to experimentation.

Geoff Livingston says Godin didn’t delve deeply enough before broadly characterizing nonprofits, and offers some examples of innovation:

My response to this is when was the last time Seth Godin did actual work in the field? Because I work with both nonprofit and commercial entities, and I can tell you which sector is getting it faster: Nonprofits. Much faster. If Seth did actual field work — instead of promoting his personal brand and ideas — he might have practical experience to cite in his lament. Instead, we have an uninformed opinion.

Consider the Humane Society’s efforts or LiveStrong’s or Live Earth’s and the National Wildlife Federation. These are all big brands that I’ve talked to in the past two weeks! Then there’s the CDC actively engaging to combat H1N1.

In any case, the conversation’s a worthy one. Sean’s right when he says that “we need to get comfortable with discomfort.” The blog/Twitter argument is a good one, so it’s fair to recognize Godin’s spark. As Beth says (in comments, above): “Anyway, he got us all blogging, twittering, and Facebooking about it …” Exactly. Thanks, Seth!