The Nonprofit Culture of Poverty Part 1: How We Do

Nonprofits do the work of changing the world every single day. One of the ways we do that is through challenging systems and rebuilding structures that lead to oppression and poverty.

So, why has it taken us so long to do the same for ourselves?

The cycle of poverty continues for generations. People are born into it, and without a way to break the chain of circumstances, they remain within it. They lack familial resources to provide the intellectual, social and cultural capital that would allow them to accrue the right connections, financial capital and overall stability that would help them escape - and stay out of - poverty.

There are many approaches to dealing with the cycle of poverty. Most involve the development and infusion of education, financial resources and social-cultural supports that provide a framework for people who would like to move out of poverty. The most effective interventions target multiple generations - usually parents and children - to provide jobs and training for parents and early childhood education for the kids.

This blog is the first in a series that will examine the parallels between nonprofit organizational management and the culture of poverty. This installment will cover how we relate to ourselves, as a sector, and how we tend to operate day to day. I will also provide some ideas as to how we might begin to adapt our orientation toward poverty and scarcity, and instead move toward bigger mission impact and scaling world-changing work.

What The Nonprofit Cycle of Poverty Looks Like

Because I am aware of and sensitive to issues of poverty, and especially to generational poverty, I want to be careful and respectful in drawing this comparison. After years of working toward greater economic justice, and helping people get ahead financially and socially in life, I am aware the issues faced by people living in poverty are monstrous and devastating.

At the same time, I’m not known for my small opinions.

Here’s the thing: we nonprofits perpetuate our own version of generational poverty. We face similar cultural markers as the culture of poverty generally face. Dr. Ruby Payne identifies a few key areas where this may be observed in her book, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” which I am glibly repurposing here (and I will recommend you read it, for all purposes, but mostly because it is really helpful). The ideas she covers in the book that stand out to me as pertaining to nonprofits are listed below. Please note, these cultural markers are not inherently negative and are not meant to be - they can be benefits and allow for survival - while simultaneously posing challenges when it comes to advancement and leaving poverty. I’ll use her labels, and expound on them from what I observe as to how nonprofits generally operate.

  • Importance of personality: We rely on charismatic leaders who can carry a cause forward - regardless, all too often, of their actual credentials or capabilities. We want flash, we want someone who can make the funders swoon. If this personality isn’t found in the CEO or Executive Director, chance are, it will be in the Development Director or another key leadership role.

  • Importance of relationships: Without relationships, nonprofits don’t exist. Period. Need funders? Check. Need donors? Check. Need board members? Check. All of these require significant investment in relationships, and place major pressure upon their success. Note: a lot of relationships in nonprofits are less than reciprocal. We often rely more on others than we think we provide in return. Notice I said “think.” That’s because we do provide major value - we’re just not great at talking about it.

  • Matriarchal structure: In nonprofits, this issue is complex. Women dominate the field by the numbers - about 75% of nonprofit employees are women, according to HR Council for Nonprofits - yet women represent only 33% of board leadership among nonprofits with budgets of $25 million or more annually. Given the sheer number of women in the ranks, nonprofits tend to operate under female guidance and influence on a day-to-day level. This disparity in representation in positions of leadership versus direct service and other positions has more to do with distribution of power, which I’ll cover in the next installment.

  • Oral-language tradition: I can’t begin to tell you how many nonprofits I’ve known and loved which had little or no written policy, procedure, cases for fundraising and on and on. They instead relied on people to relay this information as folklore.

  • Survival orientation: Never mind the daily existence of never having enough - down to locking the Post-it’s up in a cabinet lest they be wasted by frivolous staff members (an actual nonprofit job reality I once experienced) - let’s get down to how nonprofits position themselves for fundraising purposes. For all the appeals I’ve seen that are so rife with scarcity, they practically drip desperation, I would guess that most nonprofits are on the verge of closing their doors tomorrow, unless, of course, I can give them $25. Here’s the danger with Survival Orientation - it keeps us constantly treading water. We can keep our heads up just enough to get by and avoiding drowning - but it isn’t enough to get us to propel ourselves forward. By staying always focused on just getting by, we are not able to plan for the future, invest in our organizations, and advance our causes effectively. We are able, solely, to avoiding dying.

  • Identity for [employees] tied to rescuer/martyr role: The rescuer/martyr role that many nonprofit employees take on, and the attendant overwork and lack of investment in self-care (or support for employees, from the organizational standpoint) is responsible for the mass burnout and resultant turnover that happens in the nonprofit sector. It’s not ONLY this, but it is definitely an issue.

  • Ownership of people: As Dr. Payne describes it, this has to do with fear about people leaving their roots. In nonprofits, we do have concerns and difficulty when people leave an organization for another nonprofit, especially if it’s in another field. God forbid someone leave for the private sector. They may as well have never existed. It is my opinion that we would rather keep people where they are doing exactly what they do right now, than invest in them and help them advance their careers. This limits our succession options, and keeps us from hiring from within for executive management roles (only 21% of nonprofits do; compared with nearly 80% of for-profit businesses).

  • Polarized thinking: Some things are good, others are bad. Some people are good, others are bad. We do good things, corporations are bad (except when we need their money, obviously).

  • Time: Dr. Payne says it this way, “Time occurs only in the present. The future doesn’t exist - except as a word.” Nonprofits lack strategic plans that can help guide their priorities for several years at a time. That’s a big enough problem. But here’s the clincher: only 34% of nonprofits bother to produce written succession plans - as opposed to 85% of for-profit businesses. I don’t know if we think people never quit, retire, or die, but it sure as heck does speak to the Survival Orientation and present-focused time concepts.

  • Lack of order: Not all nonprofit offices look like a hoarder’s den, but a lot of them do. I once attended a meeting wherein the Executive Director had several garbage bags full of sheep’s wool in his office. He kindly offered me some, in case I liked to spin yarn, but alas, I’m not that cool. This weekend, I walked by a charitable mental health clinic and noticed with horror that the blinds were filthy and broken, the furniture was worn and the front door glass hadn’t been cleaned since the dawn of time. Why was this offensive to me? As someone who consumes mental health services, I know how hard it can be to ask for help in the first place. It can feel demoralizing and marginalizing to even seek out a therapist or counselor. To enter a building that looks like nobody gives a crap about the cleanliness and order can feel like a reflection on your own value. It’s not helpful.

Some or all of these items may be true of your nonprofit. If none of them are, that’s fantastic! Good for you! You should throw a parade with all the joyous energy you must have!

If some of these were true for you, though, I do think there are some things we can do to begin to shift this Nonprofit Cycle of Poverty. A little shift goes a long way.

How Nonprofits can Break Their Own Cycle of Poverty

Nonprofits have more power than we think we do. We are here to do the work of changing the world for the better. That’s it. It means a lot of different things to different people, but ultimately, the reason why nonprofit people get up every day is to make the world a better place. This is a noble thing to do - and it should be celebrated and appreciated. We can start by celebrating and appreciating ourselves more intentionally. We can start by shifting some of the habits and beliefs that are keeping the sector in a place of constant need instead of moving our missions forward and making the kind of positive impact we want to make on the world.

When it comes to these cultural markers, here are some suggestions about how to think about them differently to get a better result:

  • Importance of personality: Personality is valuable, but it is not the only thing that matters. We need to invest in credible leaders. People who exhibit high levels of integrity, competence, sound judgement, emotional intelligence and likability. We must consider what people actually bring to the table, including their track record and their performance. Do they do what they say they will do? Do they deliver the results that are most important to the mission? Do they make or recommend prudent (but also innovative) decisions? Do they exhibit strong and positive relationships with staff and others with whom they have relationships? Are they likable?

  • Importance of relationships: Instead of allowing our relationships to languish in asymmetry - with funders and supporters holding all or most of the power, consider approaching relationships as equals. Just because someone has money doesn’t make them know more than you do about your business. Yes, be respectful, inquisitive and kind. But don’t let your power get sucked out of the transaction.

  • Matriarchal structure: We can do two things that come to mind on this front: increase the involvement of men in nonprofit work at all levels of the field; and increase the representation of women in high-level positions of influence and decision making.

  • Oral-language tradition: It’s great to have an oral history. It’s better to record and document it. Create processes and structures, develop organizational stories and document them, ensure people in your organization understand what is happening now, what has happened in the past, and where you are going next. Keep track of it, and make these stories intentional and...again...document them. Especially policies and procedures. Please. For the love of all that is good.

  • Survival orientation: The only way we will make the kind of world-change we hope to make is by taking a long-view. We can’t do that when we are always barely surviving as organizations. We can’t build reserves when we can’t make payroll. We can’t make payroll when none of our funders will pay for staff costs (ahem, read the upcoming July 20th post for more on this). The key here is to think ahead, get through the panic of right now, and take steps toward the future.

  • Identity for [employees] tied to rescuer/martyr role: It’s not your job to save everybody - not everybody wants to be saved. First of all, this is a paternalistic and condescending stance. Ironic, isn’t it? Second, it will kill you if you live as a martyr (hence, the name, “martyr,” which clearly refers to people dying for a cause. Live for a cause. Live for it, and do the best you can do. And take care of yourself. Prioritize self-care for you, and insist upon it as an organizational value.

  • Ownership of people: Switch to supporting people. Respect them and help them find the best way to be self-determined in their lives. What do they want to do? Who do they want to be? Help them find that, and do it. Even if they advance, or leave. Think of ways to help people move forward into leadership. Invest in their professional and personal development (and yours).

  • Polarized thinking: Life is full of gray areas. It’s not always possible to know all the right answers to something. Open dialogue. Lead the way through asking questions.

  • Time: I may harp on this constantly, but, oh well. I will until everybody gets these two things figured out: you need a strategic plan and a succession plan. They go hand in hand. One without the other is still worth doing, but not nearly as powerful. And I don’t mean a strategic plan that is fancy and takes forever and sits on a shelf. I mean a strategic plan that allows you to take quick and responsive action now, with room for adjustments and advancement long into the future. Succession planning forces an organization to think of the future and to make sure staff and board are ready for it. Succession planning asks the questions: what do we intend to accomplish? Who will help us accomplish this? How we will help them to get ready for that responsibility? And then, creates a way for that to happen.

  • Lack of order: Look. You don't have to spend a lot of cash to make your office presentable. Clean it up. Make it feel welcoming. Make sure your clients, funders and visitors feel welcome. Keep it classy, even if you can’t afford a lot of fancy stuff. This is a matter of respect, at its core.

Nonprofits have thus far engendered a culture of poverty, living in scarcity and limits that are not helpful in advancing our missions. If we want to make a change, we must shift our thinking - our beliefs - about what it means to work in a nonprofit, and how a nonprofit ought to be run.

Check out Wednesday’s post for Part 2 of this series.