Nonprofits and the Drama Triangle

Cynthia Banks Blog

At Foundation for Global Scholars, our commitment to being a conscious organization means noticing where we are operating unconsciously or at a low level of consciousness.   Here’s an example. I first heard the term “donor fatigue” in 2015, and it resonated with me. Although I’m in the business of fundraising, and I love to support people and causes, even I am weary of donation appeals.  I started wondering about this.   The reason I feel fatigued is not about the frequency of requests but rather about the approach.   It has to do with the drama triangle.

victim2The drama triangle is a concept I first heard about in 2007. It’s a social model first introduced by Stephen Karpman in the 70’s that elucidates a destructive pattern of people in conflict.   Here’s how it works:

In any conflict or challenge, there’s an opening to jump into the drama triangle. Something happens – some issue that creates a conflict – and immediately there’s a seductive pull to notice what’s wrong and assign roles of victim, villain and hero in the scenario. It’s seductive because these roles can feel really good for about 20 minutes while the adrenaline rush is kicking in. The problem is, operating from these roles will suck one’s energy and prevent one from accessing his or her own real power. And when you see others or yourself as victim/villain/ or hero, you can’t see people as whole and capable.   The drama triangle is an astonishingly simple concept – and once you’re aware of the concept, you can’t help but see it everywhere.

The drama triangle is alive and well in the nonprofit world. (In fact, drama is inherent in the name: to be a “non” anything automatically assigns some less-than or victim value to the structure).   Nonprofits have historically relied on the generosity of others to survive or thrive. Inherently, this sets up a tricky power victim/hero dynamic.   I see nonprofit personnel engaging in the drama triangle subtly with language, or overtly with strategy when they present themselves or their constituents as victims and the donor as heroes. Operationally, we might raise money off the drama triangle, but we’ve lost our real power. We can play the victim card so well and effectively that some of us can raise millions (think Sarah McLachlan and her SPCA commercials).   It works, but at what cost? By focusing on how we or our constituents are lacking in some way, or appealing to others to be donor heroes, nonprofits lose their sense of power and integrity.

I believe donor fatigue is in large part a result of a dysfunctional system operating on the triangle. Nonprofits can and are changing this by choosing more empowering language to describe themselves (e.g. civic sector organization, social impact organization, for-impact organization). We can also create value by offering partnerships instead of sponsorships. The most transformative action we can take, though, is to change our mindset from victim mentality to seeing ourselves and our constituents as whole and claiming our full power.

If any of this resonates with you, and you too are interested in cultivating conscious global leaders who operate OFF the drama triangle, please join our tribe at FGS. You can email me at nkepner@fgscholars.org, follow us on Facebook, or join our LinkedIn Groups.