Like a lot of women in Manhattan, I’m a Red Carpet kind of girl – I want the opportunity to show off my keen fashion sense, my latest haircut, my tasteful jewelry, and my cool shoes. Oh definitely my shoes. There was an ad running in the New York Subways for a little while that had more than the usual ring of truth. It said, “New York City – tolerant of your beliefs, judgmental about your shoes”. Consequently, I have always dreamed of going to the Oscars. Oh, the glamour, the suspense, the starts, the gift baskets…but there is an odd phenomenon at the Oscars that lurks in the background. We all know about it, it even occasionally gets mentioned by the paparazzi, but remains something we collectively ignore. The phenomenon is called the “seat filler”. Since the Oscars are televised live, it seems to be aesthetically important to maintain the illusion that the house is filled to capacity. When celebrities get up to accept their awards, take a phone call from their agent, or use the ladies room, a stable of individuals is unleashed to keep the seat warm and occupied, looking pretty, so the cameras never have to pan over empty seats. This is the role of the often forgotten, yet critical Seat Filler.
The seat filler is often an aspiring actor or actress, and some are even Hollywood institutions unto themselves (there is an urban myth about a gentleman who has been a seat filler at the Oscars for a decade). The role of a seat filler, someone who aspires to hear their name and accept their own award one day, is a particularly odd position to be in life. A simulacra of celebrity, one might say. Let’s take a moment to appreciate these brave souls that act as living mannequins, recognizing that they may actually have their own set of skills, goals, dreams, and desires. Why am I waxing philosophical about the unrecognized hero that is the seat filler? I’ve come to realize that non-profit organizations frequently have a variety of people that act as seat fillers in a number of ways. There are seat fillers meant to be pretty or provide a name brand that an organization can haul out when needed, but otherwise aren’t taken all that seriously. There is the seat filler that acts just like the Vice-President of the United States, to be seen and not heard, attend the events the Commander-In-Chief is unavailable for or which or considered to unimportant for the leader of the free world.
Then there is the seat filler, who like our friends at the Oscars, are a vital link in the chain. The Oscars would be a dismal event, if every time the camera panned across the audience, half of them were missing. They are a fundamental part of the structure of the Oscars. They are the nuts and bolts that keep the show going while others receive the accolades. The non-profit worlds is filled with those who work in an analogous role, running the show in the shadows, never meant to overshadow the big bosses, but tasked with making them look good by making the organization run. Most non-profits discover that they run into problems when the hard-working seat-fillers begin to emerge from the wings and start to become the main attraction. The seat filler isn’t the star, so in the struggle for the limelight, technical achievement is often overshadowed by good marketing, and good marketing usually wins. As preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon once rhymed, “It takes more skill than I can tell, to play the second fiddle well”.