Chicken Little Syndrome – Why Stern’s Charity for All Misses the Mark

March 20, 2013 4 comments
A book review by Dr. John Brothers, Senior Fellow at the Support Center

LoadingThis month I had an opportunity to participate in a discussion on HuffPost Live with Ken Stern, the author of the recent book Charity for All.  Having read the book, I had the same reaction to it then as I did when I first read the statement that introduces it on Amazon:

“Vast and largely unexamined, the world of American charities accounts for fully 10 percent of economic activity in this country, yet operates with little accountability, no real barriers to entry, and a stunning lack of evidence of effectiveness. In With Charity for All, Ken Stern reveals a problem hidden in plain sight and prescribes a whole new way for Americans to make a difference.”

Overall, the above premise is flawed in a number of ways, many of them coming from a tired narrative that emerges from someone wishing to make a splash by simply stating that nonprofits are weak and we all should be afraid.  The above statement also provides an ideal framework from which I can explore some of the issues I have with the author’s viewpoints:

  • “Vast and largely unexamined” – In one of the only areas where Stern is correct, the nonprofit sector is “vast” and the 1.6 million nonprofits are part of the fasting growing sector in the United States, equal to the manufacturing industry and accounting for nearly 10% of economic activity in the United States.   The “unexamined” term is where Stern misses the mark.  As an author, like Stern, my book joins more than 50,000 books on Amazon that discusses the nonprofit sector.  The sector has hundreds of network organizations that are dedicated to its development and over 1,500 academic and professional development programs throughout the country are aimed at studying the sector.  This hardly seems like an unexamined sector.
  • “Yet operates with little accountability” –  If you walk into a small to medium-sized nonprofit and look at its requirements to certain stakeholders, the number of accountability filters it has is much more complex than the accountability requirements for “mom-and-pop” businesses, which are largely the typical type of organization in the business sector.  A nonprofit has a board responsibility, an institutional donor responsibility and potentially several others.  An equal business has no responsibility to a governance structure or really to its customer in the same way.  Yes, the board and donor filter may be relaxed in its management of the accountability but at its weakest, it still far supersedes its counterpart on the for profit side, including myself as a for-profit business owner.
  • “No real barriers to entry” – The nonprofit sector looks a lot like the business sector if you look at it from 10,000 feet above ground.  Like the business sector, a heavy majority of the organizations are small to mid-sized groups and also like the business sector, the process to become a legal entity is a relatively easy one.  While putting barriers to business creation is frowned upon in the political and business world, Stern would have us think that charities should be held to a different standard.   Our growth is partly due to the same American creativity and innovation that guides the creation of small businesses and the nonprofit sector should be regarded no differently.
  • “Stunning lack of evidence of effectiveness” – Similarly, if you walk into a nonprofit today and utter the word “effective” or  now “impact” or the dozens of other words relating to being a better nonprofit, you are likely to get a response, many times a strong response.  The answer may be steeped in data, a best practice or a personal story, but in the end the answer lies in a strong or weak organizational process aimed at looking at some sort of impact.    On the business side, the same processes occur but these processes have existed within the business community for a long time, maybe hundreds of years to some effect.  The nonprofit sector has made great strides in the last 5, 10 and 20 years.  In 1992, if you mentioned the notion of “effectiveness” in nonprofit circles, you might have been in unfamiliar territory.  Today, it is common language amongst most in the sector.  Stern’s premise only shows that he fails to understand the long-term arc of the sector and the important sector shifts made in recent and the not-so-recent years.

In the final section of the Amazon statement, it reads “Stern reveals a problem hidden in plain sight and prescribes a whole new way for Americans to make a difference” and unfortunately this is where Stern is the most challenged.  What Stern has done is add to a boring narrative that says “nonprofit bad, my business solution good”.  It is an easy and lazy argument to make and while it gives a greater opportunity to sell books, overall it severely misses the mark while also condescendingly minimizes the sector and pushes unnecessary fears to donors.

The worst is that Stern highlights his experience in the sector, as the former leader with National Public Radio, a position he was pushed out of in 2008.  According to his bio, this was largely the only nonprofit role he has had in his impressive career in government, management consulting and as a lawyer.   While I don’t discredit his experience and regard it highly, his response to the sector through his book is eerily similar to how those unfamiliar with the sector, coming from the business community and consistently saying, “Let me use my experience from outside the sector to change what’s inside it”.   It plays to the flawed theme that other sectors are better and how lucky we are to have their advice rain down from on high.  The term “Charity for All” that entitles Stern’s book is more about the charity he believes he is giving us rather than his book helping charities.  Those on the ground in the sector who are familiar with this narrative and approach, understand that Stern’s book is not about charity at all.

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Empire State Fellows Program: Applications Accepted to April 12th

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo is now accepting applications for the second class of Empire State Fellows. Applications for the Empire State Fellows Program must be received no later than April 12, 2013 at 11:59 p.m.  This two-year program is a full-time leadership training program that prepares a new generation of leaders for policy-making roles in New York State government, and encourages professionals from underrepresented groups to join the Governor in creating a New New York.

The 2013 class of Empire State Fellows will serve from September 2013 to September 2015, and receive an annual salary commensurate with experience not to exceed $72,765, plus a generous benefits package.  At the end of the fellowship, a performance review process will identify fellows that will be given the opportunity to continue to serve as leaders in New York State government after completing the program.

Each fellow will work directly with a Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, or other high-level policy maker. Work assignments will offer Fellows unparalleled experience collaborating with senior officials and participating in the policy-making process.  While taking part in the work of government, Empire Fellows will participate in educational and professional development programs that will prepare them to confront the increasingly complex policy challenges facing New York State.

Additional information about the Empire State Fellows Program is available at  If you have specific questions about the program contact

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March Tweets

We have been doing a lot of reading this month, and here are a few articles that stood out to us. Please let us know what you found interesting.
It’s time for change, through the Activism’s Future campaign launched by North Star Fund.
A case study conducted by the Nonprofit Finance Fund prompted a few pointers on nonprofit collaborations.
A decision to concentrate on multiyear grants, the Jim Joseph Foundation considers that it’s more effective to achieve goals. What do you think?
Categories: Tweets for Thought

What Can We Learn NOT TO DO From Cirque du Soleil?

Julia LuI would venture a wager that most of you reading this have heard of Canada’s cultural icon, Cirque du Soleil, the company that introduced a new concept of a circus over a quarter century ago.  Probably many of you have attended one of their performances.  I had been a loyal patron for many years and eagerly awaited Cirque setting up its big top each year.  My feelings towards the company started to shift a few years ago when they moved indoors to venues such as Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall.  At first I was excited by the prospect of more performances, but I found myself disappointed after attending them.

I was saddened to see a spate of recent international news coverage chronicling the travails of this once programmatically and financially successful organization.  The profit-making company revealed that it is no longer profitable, despite grossing over $1 billion last year and selling 14 million tickets.  The company is undertaking a drastic cost savings plan that includes laying off 9% of the staff; the Quebec government is no longer providing financial support; and some of Cirque’s long-time partners have withdrawn their support.  With the move to new venues and markets, Cirque lost sight of its mission, organizational vision and artistic motivations.

Cirque’s current conditions are partially rooted in their selection of a new CEO in 2001 who made as his primary focus increasing revenue by 25% annually.  They tripled performances, entered untested markets, and ventured away from their core concept into magic, variety and musical shows–areas beyond their expertise.

What parallels do you see between your current challenges and Cirque’s high-flying acts, and how do you think Cirque’s missteps could have been avoided?  I for one see weak organizational leadership, lack of focused institutional planning, mission drift, loss of long-time programmatic partners, loss of financial supporters, withdrawal of government funding, the absence of a useful dashboard to monitor performance on an ongoing basis, the hazards of a leadership transition, and a fraying business model that needs to be retooled.

Cirque could have mitigated some of these conditions if they had undertaken solid strategy planning that incorporated equal parts mission and revenue.  While those of us in the nonprofit sector are more oftentimes motivated by mission, we should never lose sight of maintaining a balance between these two variables.  The CEO was probably the ideal person when hired, but organizational leadership was either insufficiently engaged or lacked the courage and/or data needed to make tough decisions along the way as their world changed around them.  Had they done so–and these things are never easy–Cirque may have averted their current critical state.

All of us at the Support Center/Partnership in Philanthropy are well acquainted with the circumstances like these, as they relate to nonprofits of all sizes. We have experienced consultants who can help your organization confront your challenges and overcome them.

Give me a call at 917-522-8308 to find out how we can help your organization, or just let me know which is your favorite Cirque show!

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Julia Lu

Director of Consulting

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Welcome to our new Associate Director — Heather Robinson!

Heather Robinson Photo

We are proud to welcome Heather Robinson as Associate Director. Based in our new Newark, NJ office, Heather will focus primarily on grantmaker relationships and strengthening the Support Center’s development capacity.

Heather is a recognized leader in both the philanthropic and nonprofit arenas in the Northeast region of the United States.  She served as Partnership In Philanthropy’s Executive Director/CEO for two years and played a key role in fostering the merger of Partnership In Philanthropy with the Support Center.  Prior to her CEO role, she served as Partnership In Philanthropy’s Marketing & Development Director for three years.  Earlier in her career, Heather served as the Executive Vice President of the Drucker Foundation in New York, an organization whose mission is to strengthen the leadership of the social sector by providing nonprofit executives with essential leadership wisdom, inspiration and resources.  Before moving to New York City, Heather was the Director of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, Boston, which funds legal services to the poor.

Heather received her B.A. in Art History from George Washington University and her M.A. in Museum Administration from Seton Hall University. She is a board member of the Chatham Education Foundation and is also a volunteer with the Junior League of Summit, Chatham Recreation and the Girls Scouts.

Contact Heather (917)-868 1957 or if you are a grantmaker or supporter, or want to know more about supporting our activities.
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Brooklyn AIDS Task Force Seeks CEO

BATF LOGOBrooklyn AIDS Task Force (soon to be known as Bridging Access to Care) is seeking a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to lead BATF in its transition to a full-service organization providing health and related services to high-risk urban populations. The CEO will oversee operations at four sites, a budget of $8 million, and over 75 professionals providing a broad spectrum of services including licensed mental health and substance abuse clinics, Health Home Care coordination, health education, chronic disease management, case management, and housing. The CEO will directly supervise BATF’s growth in emerging service models while holding true to its historic mission to serve the hardest-to-reach groups in New York.

Click here for the full position description and additional information.

BATF retained the Support Center to provide Executive Search and Transition Management services.


Impact 100 Garden State 2013 Grant

impact 100 garden state

Impact 100 Garden State, a new philanthropic organization in the state, is seeking grant proposals from non-profit groups that have programs or projects in Morris, Passaic, Somerset and/or Sussex counties. Grants are welcome in any of five

focus areas: arts and culture, education, environment, family, health and wellness.

Impact 100 operates on a simple concept that has been very successful in many other areas of the country.  Gather 100 women to join together to make one transformational grant.  The number of members will determine the size of the grant.

 Membership in Impact 100 Garden State is open until March 31. At that time they will announce the exact amount of the 2013 grant. Letters of Intent are due between April 15 and May 15, and full applications are due by June 15. Final selection will be announced in October. Read more at

Taproot Foundation Service Grants

 Taproot Foundation makes teams of pro bono consultants available to qualified organizations that improve society and the New York City community-at-large. Unlike traditional foundations, Taproot Service Grants provide the expertise of business professionals in the areas of Marketing, Information Technology, Human Resource, and Strategy Management. Our projects provide high potential nonprofits with the tools and services you need to strengthen your organization and serve your communities.

Deadline to apply is March 1, 2013. For more information please go to 

Categories: RFP