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To Be or Not to Be...

March 19, 2009

(Tony Pipa is a consultant whose twenty years of executive leadership span nonprofits, foundations, and global NGOs seeking to alleviate poverty. In his last post for PhilanTopic, he wrote about nonprofits and executive compensation.)

Harvard_biz05 Almost a year ago, I read a manifesto of sorts by William Deresiewicz, a former professor of English at Yale, titled "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education." Deresiewicz's exploration of the type of education occurring at our best universities -- which he says have forgotten that they exist to make minds, not careers -- includes such tidbits as:

  • It makes you incapable of talking to people who aren't like you;
  • It inculcates a false sense of self-worth;
  • It teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense;
  • It produces leaders who have many achievements but little experience, great success but no vision.
  • It's one of those pieces you have to read yourself -- there are too many provocations in it for any blog post to do it justice. Go, read it now, and whether you agree or disagree, be prepared to get riled up.

    To my mind, Deresiewicz's criticisms were prescient about the questions raised in the NY Times and elsewhere about business education and how the training of our "best and brightest" may have contributed to our current financial mess.

    I think one reason the Deresiewicz piece has stayed with me (other than I'm the product of an elite education) is that I feel the nonprofit sector is in danger of falling prey to the same pressures that gave rise to the situation he decries on college campuses.

    By becoming "a glorified form of vocational training," Deresiewicz asserts that universities have become "profoundly anti-intellectual." His description of what it means to be an "intellectual" captures, to my mind, the characteristics of a visionary and successful nonprofit leader:

    Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power....It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination and courage.

    Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them.

    In our rush to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the sector, and to import methodologies and metaphors from the business world in pursuit of that end, I worry that we give short shrift to the ways in which such methodologies alter and even undermine the characteristics that give the nonprofit sector its value and meaning. Indeed, all too often we seem incapable of articulating the sector's distinctive features in the face of business logic and fold our cards too quickly. There are eerie parallels between the humanistic side of nonprofit endeavors and the humanistic education that Deresiewicz sees as getting lost in the fray.

    As we continue to hear suggestions about what nonprofits should do to be more like for-profit businesses, let's not lose sight of the fact that a good deal of the sector's success is attributable to those very characteristics that so many in the business world are quick to dismiss. Yes, there's room for improvement in the way we go about our work. But the ultimate end should not be efficiency for its own sake, but improving lives and communities. That may be more inefficient than we like to admit.

    -- Tony Pipa

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