Busting Six Nonprofit Myths
I'll have to admit. At first glance, the following six myths of nonprofit work are comforting. Reassuring. Even honorable. Each providing an idealized concept about the sector, the people who work there and those who support it. But I've worked in this sector for decades. At best these myths are half-truths. At worst, terribly misleading. Either way, nonprofit myths do a great disservice to all involved. Each needs to be busted. And the truth told.
Myth # 1: Only altruistic people work in the nonprofit sector.
Truth: Generalizations like this diminish the complexities of nonprofit work, and downplay the diversity of temperaments engaged in the sector. Yes, many agencies are filled with selfless saints. Souls willing and ready to make sacrifices for the greater good. But in the ranks are a fair number of sanctified sinners and restless rebels. Folks seeking personal redemption through a pathway of good works. Others finding a venue to vent righteous anger against social ills and wrongs. Plus many more employed in the sector for a variety of intricate reasons and motives ad infinitum. This results in profiles of nonprofit professionals more nuanced than we could have imagined. The sector's workers are truly a mirror reflection of the citizens, causes and communities they serve.
Myth # 2: Workers in the sector are willing to make less to have meaningful vocations there.
Truth: Partly true. Most people who sign up in the sector typically don't expect lucrative careers money-wise. Instead, the payoff is finding deep satisfaction in other bottom lines. At the end of a work day, a work week or a life's work in the sector they know they have made a difference by enriching the lives of others. Expanding the possibilities for all. Extricating the masses from a universal wrong. Nevertheless, nonprofit workers have to pay their bills. Send their kids to college. Save for their own rainy day. Just like the rest of the world. Among the dedicated and talented people drawn to the sector and who intend to stay as lifers are those who will have to leave it with reluctance. Out of necessity. For these, a nonprofit compensation is not adequate to make a decent living. Wish it wasn't so, but it is.
Myth # 3: We hold nonprofits to higher standards of ethics and integrity.
Truth: Society projects its loftiest aspirations, ideals and visions on the sector. Consequently, we expect nothing less than exemplary behavior and conduct from nonprofits. But we naively suppose that an agency left to its own devices can steer successfully through the best and worst of human experience. And if a nonprofit transgresses financially, ethically or morally, we are horrified by the crash landing. The truth is that nonprofits are chartered as transactional arrangements. Agencies are stewards of the public's trust. But the public must keep its side of the social contract as well. Investing the time, talents and treasures necessary to ensure precise oversight and proper governance of the sector. This is the only way society can actually "hold" nonprofit agencies accountable to higher standards of ethics and integrity. Otherwise, a nonprofit on automatic pilot is a a disaster waiting to happen.
Myth # 4: Nonprofits do not exist to generate a profit.
Truth: Technically, yes. These agencies do not exist to generate a financial profit, thus the "non" in the nomenclature. But the "non" easily morphs into a misnomer because, in fact, nonprofit agencies do "profit" citizens, communities and cultures in numerous spiritual, social and economic ways. Imagine a world without the benefits of relief organizations, scholarship initiatives, free clinics and literacy programs. Or a city without its historical assets, civic treasures and environmental aesthetics preserved. Or a neighborhood without its grassroots causes promoted and making progress. Fortunately nonprofits are there to answer our calls. Fill in our gaps. Elevate our understanding of what matters most. And in doing this, nonprofits profit all. Upholding what is most necessary, noble and nonnegotiable for all. We need a better name for this sector of entities that exists solely to enrich, enhance and expand every dimension of society.
Myth # 5: Because of the goodwill in the sector, nonprofit agencies are more prone to collaborate.
Truth: Somewhat true. Goodwill is in the DNA of the social sector. Its the stuff that keeps nonprofit agencies soldiering on. And certainly keeps an individual agency focused on the particular trench it is called to serve. But goodwill spent solely on a singular cause can lead to tunnel vision. Blinding even good nonprofits to the universal battle for good being waged by other good troops. Each oblivious to the not-so-good repetition, redundancy and overlap they've helped spawn in the sector. While some will rise above the fray to collaborate, others are in fierce competition. Namely for donors' support. This muddled mess often results in philanthropic dollars spread too thin, multiplying mediocrity and minimizing merit. Goodwill alone will not correct this imbalance. Real collaboration requires a broader calculus including the good sense, good business, good deeds and good faith of everyone working together in the sector to create the greater good.
Myth # 6: Nonprofits will always be there.
Truth: Yes, that's almost true. Wherever citizens, communities and cultures require nongovernmental, faith-based or advocacy initiatives to answer the call, fill the gap and elevate the collective conscience, nonprofits will---theoretically---always be there. But will your nonprofit of choice always be there? If it has survived beyond its founding years, probably so. If you support a nonprofit that is still led by its visionary founder, you may want to reassess the probability. Without succession plans and strategies in place, your favorite agency may not survive the struggle and strain of transitioning to sustainability. And even the nonprofit that has facilitated this transition well must continue to navigate ongoing opportunities and challenges throughout its institutional life cycle. Maximizing its strengths. Mitigating its weaknesses.
And striving with the truth. While busting the myths.
Follow @JoeMazzu3 on Twitter and Instagram. Visit
intentionalconsulting.com to learn more about his business serving nonprofits.