Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What Makes Nonprofits Laugh?

Ok, I'll admit it. I spend a lot of time, probably too much time, thinking and talking about the subject of identity. Not just any identity but specifically the group identity of the nonprofit sector. I admit it, it's a bit niche, but so is this blog. So I figure I am in safe company bringing it up. Actually I am hoping that I might even get an answer to my latest question on this topic.

The fact is I am not alone when it comes to this obsession with "nonprofitness". For a taste of just how big this question is and how active the discussion around it is you can just look at the comments elicited by Tony Wang's blog post "Where is Philanthropy's Community" from a few months ago . Or for that matter check out the 10+ years of discussion on Charity Channel's listservs for an incredible glimpse into how the nonprofit group identity has been developed and negotiated over time. There is of course no shortage of interesting writing (both academic and practitioner based) being done on this subject. When I can carve out some time in the near future I will definitely post a bibliography on the topic!

But this off-hours obsession isn't just a hobby, it also directly informs our work here at IssueLab. In many ways we are trying to walk a fine line between wanting to cross-pollinate niche communities within the sector (which most often attach to either issue areas or professional roles) and recognizing that people primarily use our site to find research on a particular topic. I have talked about the interdisciplinary nature of our work on this blog before and regularly talk to folks in trainings and presentations about how the lack of a single "water cooler" for the sector affects our strategies for knowledge sharing. And for the most part I encourage people to accept this reality while still trying to get the folks who work on housing issues to read my emails about art education.

So last night I started to wonder about the role of humor in all of this. Because, honestly I was thinking about what a nonprofit version of the Onion might look like. "Nonprofit Logic Model Proves to be Illogical" "Beth Kanter Launches Print Newsletter"?

Is the fact that the sector doesn't have a resident satirist or that the Chronicle doesn't run a regular cartoon evidence that we take ourselves too seriously (and then blog about it no less)? Or are we simply concerned that other people won't take us seriously? Or is it more evidence that we don't really have a nonprofit group identity? I mean a joke really only works when it resonates with the common experience of the audience. When I first moved to Chicago I actually interviewed for a job with a labor cartoonist. That's right - all he did was cartoons about the labor movement and people ate it up! Could we even accomplish something like this for the nonprofit sector?

Maybe this is a question for the Nonprofit Congress or the Independent Sector but I am not sure they would add it to the agenda so I thought I would ask you instead. What would your Nonprofit Onion headline be? I know it's sort of silly but I kind of think it's worth thinking about and playing around with. Because after all, those NP Onion headlines might represent the places/spaces/topics where we come together, where we cross-pollinate ideas and experiences, and er um where we might even share knowledge.

Image provided under a CC license by


  1. My Onion-Style Headline: "US Govt files for 501(c)(3) status; hopes that if paying taxes is tax-deductible, this will increase revenues"

  2. Thanks Rachel! :)

    Here is one from @philaction

    "Foundation President drops kids allowance, blames "inadequate theory of change and proof of impact."

  3. "How to start widespread panic? Yell, "Merger!" in a room filled with nonprofit leaders!

  4. Here's one based on something actually spoken in my office:

    "Idealist pleads with IRS: 'How could something that feels so right be so wrong.'"

  5. Arts Nonprofit exhibits better taste than everyone else, again.

  6. And from @WorkingLori if librarians can do it, so can (other) nonprofits! check out the video and song here:

  7. I stand corrected - the Chronicle DOES run a regular cartoon after all - Can we convince them to do a limited release gag issue? :)

  8. I agree - I think we really can take ourselves too seriously but maybe some would be too sensitive to accept the satire.

    My headline: "Nonprofit committee reviews organizational efficiency, report tied up in process."

  9. Here's an article from The Onion that pokes fun at the philanthropic sector.

    I'm Starting This Foundation So Inner-City Youths Will Have The Pole-Vaulting Opportunities I Never Had

  10. Nonprofit Makes Profit, IRS and Senator Grassley to Investigate

    If you're on Twitter please tweet headlines and use hashtag #NPFunnyBiz

  11. I love this! So sorry I didn't find you earlier. However, I strongly disagree with one sentence: "I know it's sort of silly but I kind of think it's worth thinking about and playing around with." I don't think the idea of a nonprofit Onion is silly at all. I think it's crucial for making it in this new world. Will work on titles. Let me know how I can help. I have 30 years experience as a NP CEO and have an abundance of funny stuff to draw from.
    Judy Nelson, JD, MSW, Certified Professional Coach


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