A Nonprofit By Any Other Name

A year ago, I wrote a blog post called “Why ‘Nonprofits’ Should Be Banned.” It was the kind of sensational title people tell you to use when you want attention. It was contrarian enough to get some buzz, (I hoped - I was so new to blogging I think just a couple of my diehard fans - read: friends who would do anything for me, up to and, for some of them, including, reading my blog - even saw it). It was ranty and ravey and full of vim and vinegar, if you’ll excuse the malapropism.

It has come up lately, thanks to a grander nonprofit publication than that which my simple little blog represents, that the Nonprofit Sector ought to perhaps be named something else. Maybe we should call ourselves, the “Impact Sector” (now hiring crash test dummies!) or “The Third Sector” (creepy and connotes a wonderful sort of classism right in the name!) or “The Independent Sector” (because we totally don’t depend on the kindness of strangers to fund our work...wait…) or “The Social Sector” (since people who don’t know any better won’t get us confused with social media, of course)...and so on. I clearly have a retort for every proposed name. And there’s a reason for that.

There are two huge problems (among others) with rebranding a sector that still has lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of work to do on itself:

  1. It misses the point entirely (“Name it something new and people won’t remember the Soylent Green is people! Maybe, ‘S-Gee ‘would be hip and cool! Put it in minimalist packaging and we are in business, baby!”);

  2. It wastes valuable time, energy and resources that could be better utilized rectifying the issues that we actually face.

My “Ban Nonprofits” blog focused on the culture that I insisted was “ruining everything” (I have never been known for understatement). This culture is one of scarcity and feeling “less-than.” It is one where we downplay our contribution to the betterment of the world out of, I don’t even know - humility? Fear? Subservience?

By way of example, I have this conversation constantly:

SOME PERSON: How can you make a living working with nonprofits? Do they even have money to pay you?

ME:  *uncontrollable, barely concealed eye roll* Yes. Nonprofit is not a literal term. Isn’t that funny? It just means that nonprofit businesses don’t accrue financial benefit to shareholders. Instead, the funds they accrue [note: you should be accruing some funds, and if you’re not, you’re doing it wrong and we should talk #shamelessplug] are reinvested into the mission of the organization. The social benefits they create benefit society as a whole.

SOME PERSON, very confused: Social benefits, like social media??

ME: Uhhhh...Not that. Social benefits like, things that make the world a better place. Sorry I used jargon. My bad.

This is repeated on a near daily basis. This is the problem with the general perception of nonprofits - people seem to think “aw! They are just poor, poor organizations doing nice things and of course they can’t pay for anything, so let’s give them our castoffs or a lesser version of a service or product that we provide other types of businesses, but do it cheap or free (P.S. You get what you pay for).” It’s snobbery (and I’m not sorry I said it).  

There are pockets - the social innovation pockets, and the places where people are actually quantifying and proving their impact and communicating about it very well - where nonprofits are rising above this perception. This is wonderful! It gives us the opportunity to lift all boats, as people who pioneer new and better ways of doing nonprofit business help others along the way. It does not, however, warrant a name change for the sector.

Look, people need education anyway. We can call ourselves whatever the heck we want. I don’t care if we call ourselves the “The Third Independent Social Impact Brigade.” The point is, we have to understand and invest in changing the things that have marginalized our sector all along. Here are a few of them, just for reference:

  • When someone asks us to “do more with less” we should kick and scream and say “Absolutely not, because that is stupid. Please give us the appropriate amount of money required to do this work, or it can’t be done well.” Do more with more, baby. More with more. It’s just math.

  • When someone is deconstructing their offices built in 1957 and offering their office equipment to our nonprofits, perhaps decline and ask instead for a modest financial donation that will allow you to buy office equipment made in this century. The only time to consider saying yes to this offering is if the office equipment happens to be super rad mid-century modern office furniture. Then, by all means, take it! And invite me over, because I love that stuff.

  • Turnover. Maybe we should figure out why our staff flee the sector so rampantly. It is devastating. It’s a brain drain. It costs serious (but hidden) money for us to plug the holes they leave.

  • Succession. Maybe we should realize people retire, or leave (see Turnover, above), and that we might maybe possibly sometime think about planning for that eventuality.

  • When people ask us what we accomplish, we should know. And we should know how we know. It isn’t just a gut feeling that things improve here or there because of our work. We must measure our results and we have to be confident in them.

  • One word: OVERHEAD. No. I have more words on this, after all. We need to be able to invest in infrastructure, management and fundraising. This is not a luxury, it is a necessity and we, as a sector, do ourselves no favors when we pretend we can make things work on almost no money. Let’s band together and be real about this issue. We need funds to be less restricted - and that leads me to the next thing:

  • NONPROFITS ARE RUN BY COMPETENT GROWN-UPS WHO CAN BE TRUSTED TO INVEST DONOR AND FOUNDATION FUNDS IN THE MISSION WISELY. This is not always true, of course, because now and then we have a super scandalous fraud case on our hands, and that is a shame. However, instead of behaving as if only people with lots of money who might give us some of it know anything, let’s do better work on oversight and fraud prevention, and institute stronger financial controls because we take ourselves seriously and realize thinking everybody is nice around here is not a financial control…*deep breath* so we can build trust with society about our ability to be trusted with money.

  • Career ladders for people within nonprofit organizations who would like to advance is virtually nonexistent and this needs to change. This is my last rant for the day on this topic, but the way we treat early and mid-career professionals in our sector is egregious. Invest in your people and they will invest in you. Our entire sector will be stronger, more productive, and people will notice.

A nonprofit by any other name would be as amazing. Let’s reach our potential. Let’s put our energy and time and conversation and brainpower into changing things that matter. Let’s invest in ourselves and realize the Nonprofit Sector is powerful. Be mighty.