3 Reasons Why I Hate the Nonprofit Sector

Nick Small has been at Nonprofit Hub for the last two years with his hands in everything from social media strategy to business development and running marketing efforts. As the new Managing Editor, you’ll be seeing his byline more often and a shift in voice from Nonprofit Hub content.

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Before you get too upset with the title of this article, hear me out.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some of the coolest, most passionate and intentional people through working in the nonprofit sector. I’m excited that there’s an entire industry of employed individuals, dedicated to not just filling their pockets, but making social change.

To be fair, it’s not the nonprofit sector that I inherently dislike, there are just a few things that really grind my gears. Luckily, they’re all things that can be changed with the right amount of effort in the right place.

 

1. Stigmas

The nonprofit sector is full of preconceived notions. Not the least of these come from the name itself. The “nonprofit” sector; an entire category of a capitalist society spending time and effort to accomplish a difficult task, but not bring home any bacon. Why is making money a bad thing? Something like “Social Sector” might make it a little less negative.

It’s always fun getting to tell my friends that I worked my tail off, costing me a couple extra limbs, to graduate from a Big Ten school in four years – all to take a job at an organization that “doesn’t make any money.” The response is typically a proverbial pat on the head and a “good for you, bud!”

Interestingly enough, though, my job at Nonprofit Hub was built around finding new revenue streams that didn’t include grants or traditional fundraising efforts. A way to make money for our organization so we can achieve the mission of Nonprofit Hub, and pay the bills that keep the lights on in our homes – just the same as any job a graduate accepts (and dare I say, even with comparable pay).

For some reason, since we’re dedicated to changing the world, society thinks we’re supposed to drive rusty cars and sit in crappy chairs to play the part of being a nonprofit. I say enough. “Nonprofit” is a tax standing, not a profitability standing. Revenue is not a curse word. It’s time for nonprofits to get over the awkwardness and talk about the birds and the bees; how to be self-sustaining. For-profits have just as much of a social responsibility as a nonprofit, so why are we the ones living the most frugal?

 

2. Poor Business Practice

I’ve seen it multiple times in the nonprofit sector – the snowball effect that is bad business. It starts with hiring the wrong person (or not hiring someone you desperately need) and leads to either poor quality of work, or one person getting overworked and not being able to give any one of their responsibilities the proper attention it craves.

Another epidemic is hiring someone simply because of their passion for a cause and is willing to be paid less (or nothing) because of it. Not that it’s bad, but passion isn’t enough to be successful at a job, nonprofit or not.

For example, my brother works at a sports software company. While he was going through the hiring process, he quickly learned that they didn’t care much if he liked sports or not, even though that’s the kingpin of their software. They were more interested in whether or not he was the best option to hire for the available QA position. Having a mentality of hiring attitude and skillset, not just passion, will create a more potent team to achieve your mission.

In business, I’m sure you’ve heard that what gets measured gets managed. Unfortunately all too often nothing gets measured or managed in the nonprofit sector. Things fly under the radar, deadlines get missed and menial tasks take weeks to complete. This includes important lists, social media, community events, website traffic and more.

 

3. The Inevitable Propensity for Pussyfooting

I’m not much of one for routine – honestly, that ends up being both a good and a bad thing – but I think the nonprofit sector has gotten itself into a bit more of a rut rather than a routine. The effort to raise money tends to look the same every year; a fundraising event here, a city-wide giving day there, followed up by an ill-planned, frantic year-end ask.

Not that any of those things are inherently bad, but fall short at any one of those strategies and you’re sitting in the same chair as any other organization doing the same thing year after year. Think about what’s next before you get to it. Strategize like a startup or a for-profit. Learn how to be crafty and MacGyver your way through stagnancy and into success.

Don’t be afraid to challenge what other nonprofits are doing, whether they’re in line with your mission or not. Don’t follow the crowd, but challenge the way things are done. Do you have a social media account just to check the box of having it? What would happen if you deleted it?

Maybe it would be detrimental, or maybe it would free up time to come up with a new and better revenue stream that doesn’t include a half-baked strategy for the same city-wide giving day that benefits the payment processor just as much as the nonprofits that are participating.

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Hopefully this article didn’t make you too upset. If it did, or if you have supplementary commentary, feel free to leave a comment below or shoot me a Tweet. Otherwise, go forth and innovate.

 

  • I can hear the trees shaking and branches breaking. Is that you Nick?

    Charities have a tremendous responsibility to get better and leave more. Many people and communities are depending on them heavily to deliver. The challenges are great but the opportunities even greater.

    Thanks for the call to action!

    • Nick Small

      It’s me!

      With every challenge comes opportunity — and boy do we have opportunity.

      Thanks so much for your encouragement, Mark!

  • Amen Nick! We need a revolution to rename ‘nonprofit’ to ‘social good’ – or something like that! The world would be much worse off if this sector didn’t exist – but we need to work better (not more, not harder), hire better, and manage better. The well-being of the world depends on it!

    • Nick Small

      I couldn’t have said it better!

  • For me, this makes sense. A few weeks back I finally did it. I deleted our Pinterest account. It was in my mind for months. Why do I need it? Is it part of our mission on mental health? I didn’t think so. I felt that Instagram was better at imagery. One less social media to plan, so I can focus on maybe writing more to tell our story.

  • You will definitely get a much higher than normal open rate for this issue…

  • Athayde

    You haven’t upset me at all….cause you didn’t come down nearly hard enough as I was expecting. From tiny “mom-and-pop” charities to corporate-like “families” of international NGOs, there’s plenty of nuisance and annoyance in the non-profit sector to go round and round. The click-baiting, however, was fierce. On hold for more.

  • Deborah in Canada

    Thank you for stating what many of us in the sector know but feel helpless to change.
    We need a revolution! One term suggested by a colleague was “Social Profit” sector.
    The public and funders need to know that if we didn’t exist they would have way more than their share of problems on their doorsteps. Because governments offload to the sector but don’t foot the whole bill (except for disabilities, health and education).
    What we do matters and has value. I have even had people incredulous that as the Executive Director of my organization I should get paid. And we pay below the market wages and so what do we expect? Passion and feeling good about what you do doesn’t pay the bills.
    And what about operating dollars? I applied for a capacity building grant to hire a Fund Development person for one year. The right person could have raised enough funds to keep providing programs AND their salary for the next year. Doesn’t that make sense? How do we sustain operations without ongoing funds? The funder didn’t buy it.
    Let’s keep the conversation and education going.

  • Christina Keenan

    I have worked at a few non profits. If you’re not in the back office(salaried), then you are second class. The officers are often snobby and condescending. When I researched how much the CEO and the ACEO makes in a year, I wonder what they do to deserve that salary.Why couldn’t they take a little less and spread the rest at least to the mission.

  • As a development director for many years, this should be shouted from the roof tops. The causes might be worthy but the weak management structures without oversight of experienced Board members in many cases make these organizations unworkable in so many ways.
    Nonprofit management degrees, I hope will significantly impact the sector for the good.

  • Khristine Gilroy-Johnson

    My background is in Sales and Management and I’m entering the Social Profit Sector (brilliant!) late in life but have served on many nonprofits and boards. There does need to be a revamp. A nonprofit needs to run like a business and move their cause into the Social Profit Sector. Well done, Nick! Kudos!

  • Stephen

    Amen. There are a quite a few reasons why the traditional nonprofit mindset annoys me but these are on the list. Coming from an emergency services and science background, my skin crawls every time someone gets too concerned with how a practical solution makes them “feel”. Likewise, the unerring optimism and its counterproductive bedfellow “refusal to accept reality” also grates on my nerves.

    “Something like “Social Sector” might make it a little less negative.”

    Unfortunately, the propensity for just renaming things to make them sound less “negative” is also on my list. It’s like renaming a disease that causes intense pain, disfigurement and suffering before finally killing the victim. Changing it to “Cuddly Wuddly syndrome” doesn’t change the nature of the beast. It just makes thin-skinned folks a little less offended which is a borderline masturbatory exercise. Thin-skinned people in and out of the sector pretty much make me a little stabby (figuratively speaking of course) because they tend to be some of the biggest hurdles to getting stuff done.

    #2 though really hit home with the example about your brother. I could care less if someone actually is all that concerned with the mission so long as they do the job we hired them for. There are a lot of places I travel to for work that are pretty much screwed and there’s no amount of help that is going to “lift them up” out of it so we simply seek to get in and get out with minimal fuss. I still do what I am there to do just like I would in a place that I was more fond of and that is all that does or should matter.

    I mentioned something to this effect in one of the Facebook groups for NPO professionals and came pretty close to being burned at the stake at the next national conference. The discussion turned into a big mess where the “true believers” were pitted against a handful of pragmatists. It’s the biggest pet peeve I have about a lot of nonprofit people honestly: feigned righteous indignation when someone dares to suggest that the nonprofit orthodoxy certainly does not work in their specific circumstance and honestly doesn’t work all that well in most circumstances. How dare I not “buy in”! How dare I suggest that running our startup like a business or a military unit might actually be the more efficient approach! How dare I advocate for a well-designed and accountable org chart! How dare I become an executive director without having worked my way up through various positions at various nonprofits over a decade or more!* How dare I say that we don’t have much interest in hiring from within the sector unless it is for a role where it is pretty much the only option (fundraising as an example)!

    *- By the way, the answer to that is is “The board took a vote and I ‘lost’ because this startup was my idea”.

    • Nick Small

      Hey Stephen, thanks for taking the time to write out your thoughts. I’m glad we’re on the same page and thanks for the validation! But I do disagree with the issue you have with renaming the nonprofit sector. To go with your example, fortunately, the nonprofit sector isn’t a disease that causes intense pain (or at least it shouldn’t), rather, it would be the means to end “Cuddly Wuddly syndrome.” The “nonprofit” sector doesn’t accurately describe the sector, like the name of a disease would. A business can only stay open if they’re in the black, nonprofit or not. Being a “nonprofit” doesn’t mean that we aren’t making a profit, so the only point I’m making is that the name is a hindrance to the impact our sector could have, operationally, socially and in terms of reputation.

  • ‘Good article, Nick! You’ve raised some important issues that will undoubtedly generate “hate mail” from oversensitive and defensive readers. 😉 Nevertheless, we should be talking about these things.