Seth Godin : Fear : Vertigo Tolerance : Change

Seth Godin is someone who a lot of people look at with reverence. Books of his like Tribes and The Dip have been very influential for me and many other people. But boy, oh boy did his post yesterday in which he called nonprofits to task for not embracing change and social media let loose a hornet’s nest of angry nonprofit folks!

(Full disclosure: The recent redesign of Tactical Philanthropy was done by onramp Branding. While they generally work with very large corporations, they took us on as a client at the personal recommendation of Seth Godin. In addition, Tom Watson who I mention later in the post thanked me in his book CauseWired, which I wrote a very positive review of. And Beth Kanter, mentioned as well, is also a friend.)

Seth wrote:

[Nonprofits] exist solely to make change. That’s why you joined, isn’t it?

The problem facing your group, ironically, is the resistance to the very thing you are setting out to do. Non-profits, in my experience, abhor change.

…Beth has a great post about the feeling of vertigo that non-profits get when they move from the firm ground of the tried and true to the anti-gravity that comes from leaping into change.

…Where are the big charities, the urgent charities, the famous charities that face such timely needs and are in a hurry to make change? Very few of them have bothered to show up in a big way. …The internet represents a change. It’s easy to buy more stamps and do more direct mail, scary to use a new technique.

Of course, some folks, like charity: water are stepping into the void and raising millions of dollars as a result. They’re not necessarily a better cause, they’re just more passionate about making change.

A few years ago I met with two (very famous) non-profits to discuss permission marketing and online fundraising and how they might have an impact. Each time, the president of the group was in the room. After about forty five minutes, the meetings devolved into endless lists of why any change at all in the way things were was absolutely impossible. Everyone looked to the president of the group for leadership, and when he didn’t say anything, they dissembled, stalled and evaded. Every barrier was insurmountable, every element of the status quo was cast in stone.  The president of the group was (he thought) helpless.

Sorry if I sound upset, but I am. The work these groups do is too important (and the people who work for them are too talented) to waste this opportunity because you are paralyzed in fear.

On its face, the post seems simple enough. Nonprofits are scared of change. Isn’t everyone?

But Tom Watson, author of CauseWired, a look at some of the best examples of nonprofits utilizing social media in service of a cause, argued Seth was wrong in his post, “Why Seth Godin is Wrong”:

Online marketing guru Seth Godin takes aim at nonprofits in a widely-quoted blog post “The problem with non” today, a diatribe of sorts that repeats a meme that’s been active in American philanthropy circles for at least a decade: nonprofits are afraid of change.

And it’s true, of course – at least on the surface. Most organization, especially large ones, do not race to take risks. But Godin’s piece is both simplistic and under-reported. Sure, it’s easy to say – as he does – that “non-profits, in my experience, abhor change.” Yet in my experience, they hate a change a lot less than failure – and they also hate change less than vast swaths of the corporate world (Wall Street and big insurance leap to mind).

…For one, I’m impressed every week by the work of nonprofits – work that does indeed, blow me away. And for another, there is some risk-taking out there – more and more capital directed toward experimentation – and some terrific advances in story-telling, organizing, fundraising, and activism. My book spent much 200 pages covering those stories.

…nonprofits are way, way down the list of sectors that really abhor change. Wall Street, big insurance, government – now they really hate change. More nonprofits need to adapt, to experiment, to take risks, to embrace change. But they need to keep on providing services while they’re doing it.

OK. So Tom’s arguing that nonprofits are scared of change, but not any more so than the for-profit and government sector. That makes sense.

But here’s where things get really interesting in my opinion. In Seth’s post, he points to a Beth Kanter blog post where she looked at the one characteristic of all nonprofits that do successfully adopt social media: Vertigo Tolerance.

Beth wrote:

The leaders of the nonprofits that can embrace social media can tolerate vertigo.  Another way to put this is:  the c-suite is comfortable with discomfort.

Wait! My post from Monday was titled “Accepting Discomfort as We Navigate Uncertainty”:

But I wonder, at the risk of sounding too Zen, if instead we need to accept the idea that the business of creating social impact is one that explicitly makes people uncomfortable.

It isn’t fun to feel uncomfortable, but it isn’t terrible. In fact, in many cases, philanthropists are attempting to fund programs serving people who are far more uncomfortable than then donor will ever be. The “discomfort” stemming from a lack of access to water or an unplanned teenage pregnancy simply dwarfs the “discomfort” that a donor might feel from grant-making under conditions of uncertainty.

…In fact, I believe that the discomfort caused by uncertainty is a requirement of great philanthropy. Great outcomes are achieved when an appropriate level of risk is undertaken; risk is caused by uncertainty, and uncertainty causes discomfort. We should not just advocate for philanthropy to become comfortable with uncertainty, but to acknowledge that great grant-making requires funders to accept discomfort.

Humans don’t like to take risks. We are evolutionarily designed to be risk adverse. But good philanthropy, just like good investing, requires taking risks. Maybe a Zen approach to evaluation isn’t just a new age joke. Maybe accepting discomfort rather than trying to overcome it is the key to navigating uncertainty.

So we’ve come full circle. Tom, Beth and Seth are all right in my mind. Change is hard. Too many nonprofits (and philanthropists!) find change scary and by hunkering down instead of accepting uncertainty, they are wasting an opportunity to make a difference. Wasting an opportunity in the social sector means more people in poverty, fewer children with access to education, a quickly deteriorating environment. Seth is right to be pissed off.

But all is not lost! We are in the early stages of a technology and demographically driven Second Great Wave of Philanthropy. Books like Tom’s document the ways that more and more social change agents are getting comfortable with change and embracing new approaches.

Seth’s post was cranky, but he’s right. The work of nonprofits is too important for them to become paralyzed with fear.

Tom’s post was right as well. Everyone hates changes, not just nonprofits. And every day, more and more nonprofits are learning to overcome fear and more capital is being devoted to experimentation.

And Beth’s post offers the road map to take us from Seth’s world to Tom’s world: Vertigo Tolerance.

We need to get comfortable with discomfort. Philanthropy and social change is hard work. It is not enough to have a good heart and try hard. We need people who are daring.

We need Change Agents.


  1. Truly enjoyable post, seems like everyone can learn to become more flexible as you are saying. My question is as people are becoming more willing to embed within a context of discomfort are they willing and able to think strategically about what long-term goals they are wanting to realize? Different methods are changing only because they are not realizing desired results, then can we as people within such a context actually get enough common language to define goals which then new strategies can grow into delivering?

  2. Thanks Jeffrey. I think people can best do long term planning when they are comfortable. It is hard to think about the future when you are scared about the present. So I would hope that obtaining Vertigo Tolerance would push for more long term thinking.

  3. It is true that change is uncomfortable and that fear of change is holding back some groups.

    But what I think one point that needs to be made is that there is actually plenty of evidence to show that Godin is off-base in saying that nonprofit groups are cowering in the corner while others are rushing to take advantage of the opportunities presented by social media.

    In fact, it can be argued that nonprofit groups are among the most aggressive organizations out there in using social media to promote change. There are some really innovative people out there rallying supporters behind some very worthy causes through Twitter, Facebook, and the like:

    Godin’s post made it sound like the nonprofit world is filled with Luddites. Yes, many groups have been slow to adapt. But a large number are also working through the vertigo that Beth mentions.

  4. Jeff Mowatt says:

    I have to admit, I found Seth describing The Tribes We Lead a bit spooky. In it he refers to a nonprofit raising awareness on disposal of unwanted animals, connecting with Ukrainian folk dancers and going as far as overthrowing a government. Almost as if he’d been following our efforts to raise awareness of disposable children, connecting with Ukrainian activists and persuading them to reform childcare policy. What he may have missed is that we aren’t non in the context of profit, we apply it to fund activism.

    We observed later that the charity Everychild, who we’d met with to discuss early actions, was able to achieve similar influence on Georgia’s government. So nonprofits can change too.

    The change philanthropy perhaps isn’t ready for is that it may become redundant in the existing form when the social businesses approach, which is “philanthropic” from inception, begins to deliver large scale impact which is not dependent on (anti)social capitalism.

  5. Peter,
    You make an important point. There are two other threads in Seth’s post that I intentionally avoided, because they deserve their own separate debates.

    1) Are nonprofits worse at social media than anyone else? This is the point that Tom makes and I think that most of the evidence points to nonprofits being as effective or more effective as for-profits. However, I’d also argue that both nonprofits and for-profits are not particularly good at it yet. Certainly Seth’s point that the nonprofits he supports spam him afterwards is something donors and customers both see themselves.

    2) Are the metrics Seth cited, such as Twitter followers, valid? I think they are not. In an email to me (which Seth gave me permission to quote from) he wrote:

    “It’s important to note that my post has nothing to do with Twitter, not one thing. My post was about fear of change and need for control, Twitter was just an easy way to make a point. I hate it when people think I’m being literal…”

    The Top 100 Twitter mention in his blog was a poor choice in my opinion. But I’m not particularly interested in having a conversation about which social media metrics are best. That’s a better conversation for another blog.

  6. Beth Kanter says:

    Terrific post – and framing! Thank you.

    I wanted share a few recent posts about some methods for working through the vertigo

    Also, we don’t where we are – what does the adoption curve for social media and nonprofits look like?

    Does the fear come from resisters only? Have we crossed the Chasm finally?

  7. Please forgive this cross comment to various blogs: My response is to repeat what I wrote when I took issue with Godin in 2006 for slamming nonprofits for not using Squidoo:

    Given the episode in 2006, plus Godin’s response to Tom Watson about Squidoo ( ) one can’t help but wonder if the nonprofit execs that Godin cites in this week’s post were rejecting Squidoo, rather than online fundraising and social media in general. In fact, a friend from a large nonprofit told me his nonprofit was treated arrogantly by Seth and company when they refused to get involved with Squidoo — the nonprofit leaders were made to feel stupid.

    And if we’re talking about blowing people away, you know what would blow me away? If Seth would publish a detailed report showing exact amounts raised by each nonprofit in the Squidoo program, along with case studies of the time and resources they expended. To my knowledge, detailed figures have not been published — there are only vague statements about thousands raised.

    That would be the best thing Seth could do to help nonprofits use Squidoo effectively.

  8. On March 3, 2009 I posted an article about Change Agents and the non-profit sector –

    In this piece I highlight some of the innovative thinking occuring in the charitable sector. While the post is not focusing on Social Media, it does talk about what the Kellogg Foundation and other donors are doing as well as what charities like Storehouse 39:3:10 are doing.