Sunday night, a friend invited me to attend one of the worst nonprofit events I've been to in my life, a banquet dinner honoring the very worthy humanitarian efforts of Bill Gates Sr. I don't mean to single out the organizer but I think there are lessons here that every nonprofit should take note of - especially in this age of social media.
Honorable host Rick Steves did a valiant job of breathing life into this event, but its traditional banquet structure is just too flawed. I honestly felt badly for 84 year old Gates Sr. for having to sit through the entire event from start to finish at the front of the room. That guy has endurance.
This is not to say there wasn't fantastic content. The musical entertainment was phenomenal and Dr. Stephen Gloyd gave an amazing speech on the harmful impact of the United States' structural adjustment policies worldwide (which the Obama administration is continuing).
In the age of social media, organizations need to bring people together to engage with each other ... not broadcast. You just can't get up on stage and talk to people for 2 hours and expect them to feel a part of your organization. (It's worth noting that most of the journalism organizations I work with struggle to get this as well.) Is it time to retire the banquet dinner?
The room seem filled with older guests - if you want to attract younger people to your organization, you have to provide a more engaging format. A chance to meet and talk with Bill Gates Sr. perhaps? Q&A? Educational game night? Give the audience a way to be part of the program. If you don't believe your guests have something to offer the organization, then why do you want them as members? I know why (money) ... but I'm asking you to consider if there is more than one reason.
Similarly, the benefit auction - a staple of many nonprofits - promotes (insobriety and) consumption above the vision of your organization ... do you really want guests walking away from your one visit with them a year with this impression? If you're organization has grown to the scale where it relies on an annual event of unbridled extravagance and consumption to support itself, something's probably been lost. Something to think about.
I'm a huge fan of Bill Gates Sr. His advocacy of the estate tax and his passionate support on fair taxation (Initiative 1098) are incredibly admirable. But, even Rick Steves couldn't help note that we all walked into St. Mark's Cathedral past the Tent City homeless encampment (gracefully hosted by the church in its parking lot). When will the Gates Foundation, of which Gates Sr. is a co-chair, realize that stopping homelessness in its backyard is just as sexy as eradicating malaria?