Opinion

Outsider Efficacy Bias: What it is and how it affects our work

Written by Vu Le

I always joke that when I start writing and producing Nonprofit The Musical, one of the characters would be a consulting robot. It’s a robot that is a consultant, and it repeats exactly what the staff says, but the board actually listens to it! If you’re a consultant, you might be offended by that joke. But let’s be honest, this is one of the reasons we hire consultants, and effective consultants recognize that this is a necessary role they play.

This is because we have a rampant belief in our sector that people from outside our organization/community/geographic area are somehow more knowledgeable and effective than the people in it. I am calling it the Outsider Efficacy Bias (OEB), unless there’s a better name for it. Here are some ways it manifests:

  • Board members insisting on hiring an external candidate to be the ED instead of promoting a qualified person within the organization
  • EDs/CEOs doing the same thing, hiring a staff from outside, often neglecting internal candidates
  • Foundations hiring people from academia or the corporate world, who have no experience in nonprofit, to be the CEO
  • Organizations hiring consultants from outside the geographic area instead of contracting with local consultants who live and work there
  • Organizations hiring local consultants instead of just listening to their staff
  • Conferences booking national and international speakers instead of working with local speakers

All of us have probably experienced this phenomenon in some form. For instance, when I’m in other places, people appreciate my opinions (for the most part). In Seattle people are like “Meh, it’s just Vu. I saw him at Costco. He was crying in the pasta section. What does he know about nonprofit and philanthropy anyway?” [In my defense, they finally stocked my favorite vegan raviolis]. Even my own board and staff were like “We should bring in someone who can give us advice about how to write blogs and articles better.”

It’s not always bad to bring in an outsider. It can be a necessary and effective approach. Sometimes, the organization does not have the expertise internally. On other occasions, having a new voice deliver the same message can jolt people into seeing things in a new light. Or, because of existing dynamics, an external presence can be a helpful and needed element, as that person is not yet caught up in those dynamics; for example, an outside mediator to help address conflict.

However, we need to get a handle on OEB, because it can be harmful, for several reasons:

It causes anger and resentment: Having your opinions ignored and then an external person coming in and get praised for saying the same thing, or losing a promotion to a person outside the org, these things are annoying and hurtful. Over the long run, it’s probably causing us to lose a lot of good people. A colleague said, “I was a consultant in my mid-twenties who told these older men what to do. And they listened to me. If I was staff, they wouldn’t have. I decided never to be a staff.”

It costs time and money: External consultant or staff often need coaching and context and time before they can do their jobs, whereas a local person already has that information, along with the connections and relationships that would make them effective immediately. Also, external folks are usually more costly. However, this then becomes a reason why internal staff get asked to do additional work for free, such as staff of color now having to run DEI trainings.

It can be counterproductive: There are lots of examples of when bringing in external people backfires. For instance, organizations that refuse to promote qualified internal candidates and instead hire someone from outside, and that person turns out to be a nightmare. Or, as I’ve written here, foundations that hire corporate or academic leaders who have no nonprofit background to be the CEO, and they turn out to be horrible.

It is often inequitable: Internal staff are not equally ignored due to OEB; it is more likely women of color and professionals of other marginalized backgrounds that tend to get ignored more frequently. This is because Outsider Efficacy Bias intersects with White Efficacy Bias and Male Efficacy Bias. Ironically, although people of marginalized identities are seen as outsiders, they are often not perceived as the kind of outsider that deserve the respect and positive bias.

With all the above in mind, the next time you plan to hire a consultant, trainer, speaker, staff member, etc., ask these questions:

  • Can local experts and leaders provide better knowledge and understand context better? Do we need a fresh perspective, or can it be provided by our own people?
  • Have staff and other internal colleagues been giving the same feedback and advice that we’ve been neglecting and now we’re asking an external person to come in to provide?
  • Are we ignoring internal voices from women, leaders of color, and other marginalized people?
  • If we’re using people from our own organization, are we compensating them for the extra work, or are we being askholes by making them do additional work for free?
  • If we’re hiring people from our own local community, are we paying them as much as we would pay a person from outside the community?
  • Are we dismissing the expertise of our local leaders because we saw them one time with unkempt hair, wearing pajama bottoms while cradling a box of vegan raviolis at a wholesale grocery store?

Again, sometimes it’s helpful to bring in an external person or partner. We just need to be thoughtful. Let’s get a handle on this, all right? Meanwhile, if you’re hitting your head against a wall saying things that are ignored because you’re an internal person, I’m sorry. You may have to bring in a friend to pretend to be a consultant, and you can have an earpiece for them to listen to your words and repeat what you’re saying. Or you can quit the sector, become independently wealthy, and come back as a major donor, in which case you’ll be treated like a divine entity and ultimate external expert.

Me, I am going to change my hair and adopt a new accent. Cor blimey, that’ll be a good way for people in Seattle to take me seriously, innit!

About the author

Vu Le