There are THOUSANDS of articles, thinkpieces, books, talks, discussions, workshops, studies, and opinions on the subject of nonprofit (change sector) work. There are fierce debates about a range of subjects, and folks find themselves at differing places on varying ideological, political, moral spectrums about this sector, our work, and our communities. I have come to form my own deeply held beliefs and opinions over time, but I am also someone who is wholeheartedly committed to learning more and growing from both experience and learning. A few things that have been on my heart and mind lately, as well as those things that are Eternal Thorns In My Side as a nonprofit pro include the following:
- Change sector (nonprofit) work is professional work. It is real, it requires skill sets that are not applicable nor available in for-profit work, and it carries significant importance. True story: I once had a board member tell me (to my face!) that my job could be done by any volunteer, that I was lucky to have a job, and that he couldn't believe I was paid to do the work I did for that organization. Let me repeat that: A. Board. Member. Said. This. To. My. Face. Aside from my utter disbelief (and brewing rage) at his comment, I immediately recognized that this unfortunate, uninformed dude couldn't survive a single day as a nonprofit employee. The skills required to be a successful nonprofit professional are different than those required to be a successful corporate professional--the standards are different, the work is different, and the outcomes are different.
- The nonprofit sector employs 10% of Americas' workforce, making it the country's THIRD LARGEST WORKFORCE. This is not trivial. The National Council for Nonprofits has described the nonprofit sector as the significant economic driver that it is: if the sector was an independent country, it would have the 16th-largest economy in the world. Why must our sector continually fight for recognition, awareness, resources, and support? Well, that's a whole entire other blog post entirely, but let's boil it down to the simplest of truths: the change sector works on behalf of society's most vulnerable populations and issues, few of which equate to large financial gains or increased power in our society's deeply warped value system.
- Nonprofit organizations should not "just merge" or "collaborate more". I have heard this misconception often from people who lack a sophisticated understanding of the sector. Although multiple organizations may serve the same population or may work in similar spaces, each organization's mission, program focus, methodology, geographic focus, eligibility guidelines, and other core practices may vary (and there may be very large differences between organizations on all of these levels). Do me a favor: if you're ever about to opine that two or more organizations should "just" do any of the insanely complex, messy and tangled work of joining forces, please do some additional research. 99% of the time, you'll find that there are distinct differences between organizations and the work they do, making it far more complicated than "just" legally merging into a single organization, enmeshing services permanently, etc.
- The Overhead Myth. Enough said. If this term is wholly unfamiliar to you, take some time and get to know this issue. Helpful information on this topic is here, here, here, here, here and here.
- The Sustainability Myth. Similar concept, less well-known. Funders and donors are loath to get involved and invest in organizations until and unless they prove there is a plan to ensure funding will continue on and on forever and ever to infinity (or, that's how it feels as a nonprofit professional.) More insidiously, the insistence upon proving an organization's "sustainability" is predicated on the notion that the organization will never need to request continued funding from donors and funders, which is dead wrong. The leading pieces on this subject are here, here, here, here, here, and here. My favorite take on this, from Vu Le: "The most serious challenge with the Sustainability Question, however, is that it is symptomatic of a divisive and patronizing system that perpetuates the unhealthy dichotomy of nonprofits as supplicants continually begging for spare change, and funders as benefactors."
- Nonprofits should not run like businesses. Once more, with feeling: NONPROFITS. SHOULD. NOT. RUN. LIKE. BUSINESSES. The assumption that nonprofits need to learn from our wiser colleagues and organizations in the corporate sector is patronizing, disrespectful, and it's flat out wrong. Full stop. Nonprofit work is different than for-profit work at its most essential level. Nonprofits should run like well-run nonprofits. If you want nonprofits to run like businesses, you'd better be prepared to treat them on equal footing, which our society very much does not. All I've ever heard is "you should run more like a business" often with examples of how to import strategies directly (and seemingly magically!) from the for-profit world, but this is also accompanied by ZERO investment in making these strategies structurally or financially feasible in the nonprofit sector. See more from my favorite nonprofit unicorn blogger on this topic here, here, here and here. Stop #bizsplaining, please!
And so ends my impassioned defense of nonprofit work as professional work...a thing that should not have to be defended in the first place.