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'But He Isn't Wearing Any Clothes:' A Lesson in Standing Out From the Crowd

Using the story of the Emperor's New Clothes to Teach a Lesson in Nonprofit Individuality...

"My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts!" Unknown

How do nonprofits know that they've made a positive difference in the community? How do they know that they've created lasting impact?

In the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the Emperor's New Clothes, the emperor is enormously vain and likes nothing better than to show off his elegant clothes. He changed clothes almost every hour and loved to show them off to his people. Word of the emperor's refined habits spread over his kingdom and beyond.

Two scoundrels who had heard of the emperor's vanity decided to take advantage of it. They introduced themselves to the emperor and declared: "We are two very good tailors and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth so light and fine that it looks invisible. As a matter of fact it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality."

Well, the emperor believes this is the perfect situation. Not only will he be the most well-dressed in the land, he will also be able to quickly identify the simpletons and slackers in his court. He pays the "tailors" with a bag of gold coins in exchange for their promise to begin working immediately.

Even though no one can see the clothes (including the emperor)-- and to say so would be to admit to being  "stupid" and " incompetent"-- all the courtiers declare that the clothes are quite magnificent, the colors are amazing and the workmanship is unparalleled. Hearing this, the emperor is very excited and  wears his new suit in a special  procession through the center of the city. It takes the words of an innocent child to get everyone to admit a truth that was, literally, right in front of their eyes. The little boy only appears for a moment, and yet he is one of the greatest heroes of all fairy tales—because he speaks the truth that nobody else dares to speak. "But he isn't wearing any clothes!" 

The moral of this story, as it relates to nonprofits, is don't seek to blend in with everyone else. Don't adhere to the rampant mediocrity that settles for slow, incremental change.  If you continue to blend in and agree that you're doing "enough" by just getting people through the door, we’ll barely make a dent in global warming. We’ll meagerly fund programs that only perpetuate the cycle of poverty. We’ll continue to allow millions of children to grow up without healthcare. And we’ll continue to make one of the biggest mistakes of all: focusing too much on "number of clients participating" (like everyone else) rather than on impact.   

Sometimes, what we are doing is making no difference whatsoever—and everyone knows it. Don't be afraid to fully evaluate your programs and admit that you're not wearing any clothes. Use the evaluation to improve, go put some clothes on and change the world!!   

A man can never hope to be more than he is if he is not first honest about what he isn’t.”
Don Williams, Jr.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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