Nonprofits: Poster Children for Conversational Narcissism

After two posts containing shameless plugs for my new book that’s set to release (whoops–make that three posts containing shameless plugs), it seems especially appropriate to laud and study Wesley Hill’s exceptional post on conversational narcissism:

Charles Derber’s little book “ The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life,” coined the phrase “conversational narcissism.” Derber distinguishes between what he calls “support responses” and “shift responses” in conversation. If your friend says, “I’m going to walk the dog in the park today,” you could reply, “Hope the rain holds off!” That would keep the focus on your friend’s statement (a support response). Or you could reply, “I went to the park yesterday and saw the senior girls playing soccer” — a rejoinder that transfers attention from your friend’s comment to your own interests (a shift response). “Conversational narcissism involves preferential use of the shift-response and underutilization of the support response,” says Derber.

True confessions time, nonprofit leader:

Are your conversations with donors characterized more by support response or by shift response?

  • Support response would here refer to conversations in which we talk to donors about their involvement in the cause while leaving our 800 pound gorilla (i.e., our nonprofit organization) chained up outside.
  • Shift response would refer to conversations in which any mention of the cause quickly spirals into the black hole (i.e., our nonprofit organization).

Sadly, nonprofit development specializes in the shift response. It’s not altogether unfair to suggest that development technique (e.g., “moves management”) is largely an effort to implement the shift response across time with the donor or prospective donor.

Note, however, that if shift response-style development isn’t already dead, it’s at least being chased out of the village by donors brandishing pitchforks and torches.


Check out Derber’s book and rebuild your donor development program along its central axis. Not only will you have more fun, but your donors will, too.

Case in point:

I was just speaking to our Seoul USA intern Brett Leather. He was making phone calls to folks who had heard me speak on North Korea last month at a Voice of the Martyrs regional conference in Kansas City. He said, “Man, these calls are taking longer than I thought. No one wants to gets off the phone.”

God bless Brett. He had no idea that he was experiencing a problem for which most nonprofit development officers would gladly yield up a kidney. And why does Brett have this problem?

Because our Seoul USA presentations don’t focus on Seoul USA. They focus on North Korea, the persecuted church, and how Christians in the West can prepare for persecution. When we speak, we refer people to the best books, videos, articles, and blogs on these subjects. We don’t seek to make money off the resources we sell; instead, we offer resources that are either out of circulation or not available in the West. As a result, donors like to talk to us when we call. Weirder still, it was our donors that goaded us into creating a twice-monthly Prayer Partner Update chock full of links, guidance on how to pray for NK, and notes on newly available resources. (If you want to get on the emailing list, you know the guy to write: Brett Leather. Just let him know who sent you and what you want.)

The moral of the story?

Repent of conversational narcissism, ye nonprofit pal of mine. Shift your development program away from shift responses and toward support responses. Redirect conversation (dare we say it) away from your nonprofit and toward the cause.

And, like Brett, prepare to spend long nights on the line with donors who don’t want to get off the phone.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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2 Responses to Nonprofits: Poster Children for Conversational Narcissism

  1. Amy Karjala says:

    If ministries could master this one technique, it would be revolutionary (or dare I say, transformational?).

    I’ve just pre-ordered your next book and look forward to the way it will undoubtedly challenge my thinking.

    • EFoley says:

      I’m tempted to say, “Let me tell you how I mastered this technique,” but I’m afraid the humor would be lost in print! Good to hear from you, AK.

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