Is Flattery a Double-Edged Sword for Nonprofit Management?

By Ellie Burke
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Criticism can be hard to swallow for any nonprofit. Whether you’re large or small, negative feedback—about your approach, communications, or something as simple as your campaign name—can feel like a personal attack against your organization and its people. Which is why it’s sometimes easier to focus on any positive comments and flattery instead.

At a certain point in your nonprofit’s lifecycle, you may find that you don’t even hear criticism anymore—you’ve gained credibility, size, and status, and you’re a beloved member of a larger community.

Yet criticism and feedback are essential to growth. If all we have to reference is flattery, we keep doing what we’re doing without feeling a need to change. To help you avoid this pitfall and embody the “always be learning” mindset, we explore the role of negative feedback at your organization. The right mentality can help you strengthen your organizational strategies continually and build stronger relationships with supporters.

The Dangers of Flattery in Excess

In the book Innovation and Scaling for Impact: How Effective Social Enterprises Do It, authors Christian Seelos and Johann Mair explain how organizations can fall privy to the “celebrity effect:”

“Even the most realistic and down-to-earth organizations are liable to believe in magic when the whole word tells them how magical they are.”

While praise can help build confidence, unchecked confidence can lead to more harm than good.

Flattery may create an illusion of competence…It tempts organizations to take on and execute innovative ideas confidently although they are ill-prepared for the difficulties of innovation.

Flattery is undoubtedly a powerful source of motivation and validation for your team’s efforts, yet it does little to challenge you to grow or take things to the next level.

Without a feedback loop for all kinds of opinion—positive and negative—you lose valuable information that can help you continue to scale and strengthen the relationships with your supporters.

How to Collect and Implement Feedback

Whether you’re collecting feedback on your programs, development strategies, or marketing efforts, your nonprofit can take steps to proactively collect feedback.

To collect this feedback, it’s important to have an established understanding with your audience that failure is part of your mission-solving equation. The more transparent you are with your community, the more they’ll expect failure as a possible and helpful part of any innovative process.

They’ll then feel more comfortable giving you constructive feedback—not out of frustration, but out of a mutual understanding that feedback is necessary to iterate and produce a better result.

Here are several ways you can create a feedback loop:

Focus Groups

A focus group can help you better understand your audience or a target demographic. Generally organized by a neutral third party, participants are asked questions around a specific topic. Fortune recommends gathering a group no smaller than 10 to 12.

Pro Tip
Focus groups don’t always have to happen in person. Use a tool like GoToMeeting to meet with individuals and collect feedback virtually.

Sentiment Analysis Tools

Stay aware of the public’s impression of you with a social media tool. Many analytics packages include sentiment analysis. Tracking the use of words like “great” or “horrible,” a social media tool can take your engagement analysis a step further by recording if an interaction is positive or negative. This allows you to keep track of your brand’s reputation and take remedial action that isolates, addresses, and learns from negative feedback.

Town Hall Meetings

Less formal than a focus group, regular “town hall” style meetings are the perfect way to get meaningful facetime with community members. Provide updates, field questions and concerns, and ask pointed questions to learn how you could improve.

With the many options to stream video online, you could even invite your entire community to attend via a platform such as Facebook. Be sure to respond to questions from the stream in addition to any asked in person.

Social Media Groups, Questions, and Polls

Several platforms offer “groups” as a feature to aggregate specific community members. You can then directly ask for feedback using a question or a poll within these groups, or across your entire audience.

The Organization for Bat Conservation also leverages Twitter chats to engage their audience.

Consider how you might leverage a reoccurring chat with your community to collect feedback.


You can think of a survey as an even more hands-off approach to a focus group or town hall meeting. With tools like Typeform, you can easily create an engaging questionnaire and send it out to a large group of individuals.

No matter how you chose to collect feedback, commit to calling for it on a regular basis. One way to build it into your process is to inject it into your very culture.

Foster a Humble Culture

Establishing a feedback loop starts from within. If you demonstrate its usefulness and importance to your staff, they will be more likely to build feedback into their individual work, too.

One approach is to encourage your team to regularly experiment and share their findings. These types of conversations will establish a tone that communicates that failure is an important part of the learning process.

When this is sentiment is established, it eliminates a sense of fear or shame that is often tied to failure. Without these negative connotations, every piece of negative feedback becomes a chance to learn and improve.


Whether you’re the newest nonprofit on the scene or an established all-star, there’s always a need to learn more. The problems the sector faces are constantly evolving, and collecting feedback is the one way to stay humble, innovate strategically, and ensure you don’t fall prey to any “celebrity effect.”

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