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Bright Shiny Objects

September 15, 2014

Headshot_maria_mottolaI like Alec Baldwin. I really do. He's sassy and good-looking. He's got a great head of hair and that instantly recognizable deep, silky, authoritative voice lulls you in whether he's cueing up classical music, bossing Liz Lemon around, or sharing intimacies with celebrity friends on "Here's the Thing." He's also sometimes unapologetically audacious.

So why would it bother me that he's going to be the keynote speaker at the Independent Sector conference in Seattle?  I mean, I've been on conference planning committees and I know you need a big name to entice people to log off email and travel great distances to talk to one another. I admit, Alec Baldwin is not just a pretty face. He's a smart guy with strong opinions who hasn't shied away from politics or policy issues.

So in some ways I should not have been surprised to see his photo pop up in an email with a banner announcing "Summer Surprise! Alec Baldwin will be the plenary speaker at the Independent Sector Annual Conference in Seattle."

But honestly, the whole idea is kind of depressing. While it may be a coup to snag Alec Baldwin as a speaker, to give him the spotlight at this particular point in his career feels like we won the celebrity consolation prize. It feels, truth be told, a little desperate.

Did we forget that just a year ago Alec Baldwin allegedly hurled angry homophobic insults (more than once) at reporters? Yes, he tried to make things better, but he ended up making things worse with a meandering screed he penned for a New York magazine blog that rationalized his actions by blaming an aggressive press corps that "made him do it."  It was an epic read: half mea culpa, half angry diatribe. Watching Baldwin turn himself inside out so thoroughly and so frantically elicited the same feeling you get from craning your neck to look at an accident you know you should avert your gaze from.

Am I shallow to care so much about which celebrity gets the coveted slot of opening the seminal gathering of professionals in my field? It's just a way to get us there, right? Like children, we need a bright shiny object to draw our attention. But I can't help but feel like the choice of Baldwin as a plenary speaker says something a little pathetic about nonprofits and the direction in which we're headed. There is no shortage in our field of courageous, interesting people who inspire and excite our imaginations. We see them every day. They are doers. They provoke. They don't let us off the hook. They act without asking for much in return. We would follow them anywhere. Some of them are even famous.

Choosing Alec Baldwin is a signal that what distinguishes our sector from other sectors is growing increasingly blurred. How independent are we if we have to hustle for attention with a "Summer Surprise" email that may well have been mistaken for an end-of-season promotion from Macy's? We've resorted to "Survivor: Celebrity Edition" to attract attention to ourselves. I don't begrudge Alec Baldwin his time in the spotlight, but why agree to be a stop on one of his (many) redemption tours?  

After all, there is no shortage of outlets for celebrities. There are few outlets, on the other hand, that celebrate or even pay much attention to the people we encounter on a regular basis in our nonprofit work. When Peter Frumkin described nonprofits as "responding to the deeply rooted need of individuals to be part of something bigger than themselves," he wasn't talking about rich and famous actors.  He was talking about our collective aspirations to make the world a more just and equitable place. That is what makes our field different and distinguishes it from business as usual.

Maria Mottola is executive director of the New York Foundation, one of the oldest foundations in the United States and a longtime supporter of community organizing and advocacy in New York City. 

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Maria, what a smart observation you make here. Thank you for parsing it out with such clarity. It's been going on for far too long & someone from the battlefields which your sector bravely takes on would be more meaningful & substantive to your members.

I hope this event features some of these people with the same respect they're according Alec Baldwin. They deserve it.

Well said Maria. There are so many brilliant, hard-working and dedicated people in the not for profit sector to whom I would far rather listen and celebrate, and from whom we can learn and gain inspiration to keep going.

Articulate counter-perspective, but I think it ignores the fact that Independent Sector looks and acts like a trade association--yes an association of philanthropically engaged organizations--but a trade association nonetheless. It educates members on issues and advocates for policies that are advantageous to the group, it provides networking opportunities and like all trade associations this culminates in a big, annual conference which helps frame/justify the organization. Therefore attracting members' attention and attendance is important (for any trade association)--and having a "celebrity" never hurts.

yes, regrettable if not tacky. and it raises larger questions about what motivates us to attend such gatherings, and the values of those in a position of authority who decide the format and the featured.

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