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Friday, July 10, 2009

Truth: The First Casualty of an Economic Downturn

Posted By on Fri, Jul 10, 2009 at 9:25 AM

One of the irritating things about living in a city dominated by nonprofits is how they act as if they're morally superior to the rest of us ... even when they do the same shit for-profit corporations do. I know several people who literally can't bring themselves to watch UPMC's TV ads, for example. They find the empty bromides and syrupy string quartets too hard to stomach, given its two-fisted approach to doing business. 

But this past week, a local nonprofit set a new record for sheer unremitting bogusness.

As today's Post-Gazette notes, the Social Innovation Accelerator has shut down, prompting the layoff of all 10 of its employees. Funded largely by the McCune Foundation, the Accelerator helped provide guidance to other non-profits, helping them increase revenue and operate more efficiently.

I'm not going to blame the Accelerator's board or the McCune Foundation for what was, I'm sure, a very painful decision. Nonprofits are reeling from the bad economy just like everyone else, and layoffs are part of that. 

What I DO object to is how the Accelerator folks decided to disclose their decision early on. A few days ago, an acquaintance of mine tried to reach an Accelerator staffer by e-mail. This is the auto-reply response that came bouncing back a few minutes later:

The McCune Foundation has been among the most generous supporters of social enterprise and social innovation in the region as evidenced by its long-standing financial commitment to the Social Innovation Accelerator. While The McCune Foundation plans to continue its support of social enterprise, the current challenge centers around how to do so in a way that is even more efficient, and creates even greater impact.

To address that challenge the Accelerator Board of Directors has chosen to cease all current operations of the organization. Rather than allowing the Accelerator to operate in "business as usual" mode, the board believes that suspending operations provides a unique and valuable opportunity to pause, reflect and learn from the organization's past engagements... While there is widespread support for the Accelerator's mission of helping not-for-profits improve their financial sustainability, the board is committed to making sure its impact is felt more readily, and by more organizations. [Emphasis added]

Well, this must come as a big relief to all those Accelerator employees who are looking for work today. It's not like they've been laid off because of tough times. No, it's because the board thought shit-canning them would be a "unique and valuable opportunity" for self-discovery!

Makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it? You certainly wouldn't want "business as usual" to get in the way of your employer's learning process ... even if "business as usual" was what gave you your freaking job.  

And look at the bright side, former Accelerator staffers! Now you have a "unique and valuable" opportunity to learn things as well! Like how to apply for unemployment benefits!

If this was just a poorly constructed e-mail, that would be one thing. But clearly this is an intentional messaging strategy. The Accelerator Web site asserts that "The Accelerator is currently undergoing a series of changes to help insure that the impact of social enterprise reaches even more organizations throughout the region." Nowhere does the site mention that these "changes" entail laying off the whole staff (all in the name "reach[ing] even more organizations," of course). 

The board's president, meanwhile, apparently reiterated the theme in the P-G, which paraphrases him saying "the board viewed closure as a better option to keeping the doors open and adjusting the business model as they went along."

That, of course, begs the question: a better option for who?

Like I say, I'm sympathetic to the board. I'm sure they wrestled with this choice. I'm sure they didn't mean to put out such an Orwellian bit of "war is peace/unemployment is opportunity" doublespeak. No doubt they just wanted to emphasize that the commitment to the Accelerator's mission will continue someday. Quite possibly they were going out of their way to sweettalk McCune, in hopes that they could tap McCune's cash pipeline down the road. 

Which is fine. But since these folks are engaged in a journey of learning and exploration, here's a bit of advice for them: Next time you have to lay somebody off, don't act like you are doing the world a fucking favor.

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