Dear business community, stop thinking you are better than us nonprofit folks


dilbertMy friends from the business community. I love you guys. Without you, the world wouldn’t have smart phones. And 70% dark chocolate. And airplanes. And a bunch of medicines and technology that save lives. And clothing. And running water inside our houses. And these giant flat-panel TVs that display all my favorite shows from Netflix. And kitchen gadgets like the Veggetti; it slices zucchinis and carrots into long strands and is really fun to use, despite the slightly dirty sounding name. Ooh, and restaurants serving organic kale salads with little toasted pumpkin seeds. Businesses are awesome, and I am genuinely grateful what you all do for the world. We nonprofits love you all. So I want to make sure you know this letter is from a place of appreciation and fraternity.

But seriously, many of you need to check your superiority complex. It’s annoying as hell.

Two examples: First, one of my Executive Director friends told me over coffee that a colleague of hers told her that she “got tired of how difficult the corporate world is, so I joined the nonprofit sector.” Both of us nearly choked on our tea, we were laughing so hard. Second, I was guest-speaking on a radio show about the challenges of nonprofit funding, and a gentleman from the for-profit world called in and wisely advised us nonprofit types to “Be more entrepreneurial.” He said we should have more earned-income strategies. “Like my church,” he said, “it sells sausages every weekend.”

Do you realize that every time you come to us and say, “Nonprofits need to run more like businesses,” most of us are internally repressing the urge to fly across the table and throttle you?

veggettiOf course we should learn lessons from you. The same way we learn lessons poetically from any other sector, or from history, or from the innocence of children, or from the Veggetti (Note to self: Write blog post about lessons I’ve learned from making veggie noodles). But…dude. I don’t know where this sense that you are better and more knowledgeable comes from. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re constantly asking you for money or to sit on our board so we can do our work. Or maybe it’s because our services for the homeless and low-income kids and families are not as in-your-face in society as smart-phones and Game of Thrones. Or maybe it’s because we ourselves make way less as professionals (See “All right, you guys, we need to talk about nonprofit salaries“). Or maybe, related to that, it’s because you have nicer houses and you can afford organic blueberries and you sit on ergonomic chairs at work.

None of these factors, however, means you are smarter and more talented and better looking than us lowly nonprofit slum dwellers, with our lack of 401k and our beat-up furniture that we secured from other nonprofits when they moved. Consider a few things:

Businesses have a huge failure rate. Pan Am,, Atkins Nutritionals, Polaroid, Blockbuster, Sharper rateImage. Where are they now? According to this chart posted at Washington Post, about half of start-up businesses fail after four years. The statistics are not looking all that good for businesses. What exactly are we supposed to be emulating if half of small businesses, and a bunch of big businesses, are failing?

Poorly run and corrupt businesses have screwed millions of people. Enron is the prime example. Thousands of hardworking people lost their investments and their jobs. And Enron isn’t the only example of corruption. Siemens in 2008 paid 1.6 billion to settle a suit regarding bribing the Argentine government. KBR/Halliburton in 2009 paid 579million to settle for bribing Nigerian officials to get construction contracts, BAE Systems in 2010 paid 448million to settle allegations they bribed a Saudi Arabian ambassador $2billion for some arms deal. There are countless other examples, which you can read on The examples of corporate corruptions are endless.

Nonprofits did not cause the recession. It wasn’t caused by nonprofits giving out loans to people to buy houses they can’t afford. 

When businesses fail, nonprofits have to step in to help deal with repercussions. When people lose their jobs, (or their jobs and retirement savings because of the corrupt higher-ups at Enron), you can imagine that many of them will end up needing help with food and housing and counseling until they get back on their feet. We’re cleaning up a bunch of your messes, along with other ridiculously challenging issues in society, issues that you and the Government ignore or just suck at addressing. 

And we’re doing it while navigating one of most complex, frustrating, and inefficient funding systems ever (See “The Sustainability Question, Why it is so annoying“). Do your shareholders and customers come to you and say, “So what percentage are you spending on overhead?” or “I don’t want my investment to be spent on your staff’s salary or your office rent; I want it to go directly into making the stocks increase in price” or “I’m only going to invest in your company for one year, because I don’t want you to be depending on my buying your stocks year after year. Tell me about your sustainability plan”?

We nonprofit types do not question for-profits’ value to society, and we don’t think we’re better than you. (I actually think we have an inferiority complex, which I’ll write about later). In fact, the opposite, we nonprofits actively court you to join our board and be involved with our work, which may have inadvertently led to your oversized ego. We nonprofit peeps accept that we play different yet equally critical roles in society.

There are a lot of you who are awesome, especially the ones who do volunteer on our boards and can see how much work we put in. But there are still many, many of you that I meet on a weekly basis who say crap like “You should create a business plan” that I just want to grab by the lapel and slap you around a little. Not enough to hurt you, but enough to shake loose some of this vexing air of superiority and haughtiness that surrounds you.

porcupineI wrote a letter to you a while ago, (“Dear business community, please remember these 10 things about nonprofit work”), and it would be great for some of you to re-read it. As I mentioned, comparing nonprofits to for-profits is like comparing apples to porcupines. So please knock it off. No one is better than anyone. We just do different stuff. Stop giving well-meaning but baseless and senseless advice, even though I’m sure the $500 or so we make from selling sausages each weekend would be helpful to our organizations. Stop saying dumbass and offensive things like “The only people who work at a nonprofit are the people who can’t it make it in the for-profit world.” That’s as dumbass and offensive as when people say “Those who can’t do, teach.” Focus on making 70% dark chocolate and new episodes of Game of Thrones, because some of us really need those things to keep fighting for social justice and equity. We have a lot of work to do to make the world better. 

Sincerely, everyone in nonprofit. 


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26 thoughts on “Dear business community, stop thinking you are better than us nonprofit folks

  1. bill holston

    I worked as a lawyer for 32 years before moving over to a non profit director job. I work much harder than I did in private practice for less money, but I’m very thankful to have the opportunity/privilege to work in such a fulfilling mission. Love this blog.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks for the perspective, Bill, especially valid since you were a lawyer for 32 years and have basis for comparison. We’re glad to have your talents in this sector.

  2. Alex

    Veggetti? I totally need one of those things. And also, your post rocks. Though I do admit that I have a tendency to get on my high-horse when friends who work in the for-profit world complain about their soul sucking jobs. I try not to be too smug when I talk about how much I love my job and say how lucky I am to be able to change the world and save people’s lives.

  3. Mark Rubin

    Boy howdy, did this need to be said! Will be sharing it with my readers. PS The same goes for government, as in “why do mediocre business people assume–who are often handling OPM–excuse their own incompetence while they expect perfection from government?”

  4. Roland Carette-Meyers

    I’m currently working on a degree in non-profit leadership and the side-glances and confused questions are endless. “Do you really need a degree for that?” “You can get a job in the commercial sector with that, right?” “A degree in poverty, great!” I do not mean to suggest any ill-intent or anything more malicious than simple confusion. Non-profits- when successful and in the public sphere- bear A LOT of resemblance to For-Profits (the NFL, the Met, etc.). Furthermore, when the average consumer calculates what percentage of their time and income is devoted to for-profit spending, it makes sense that they would see non-profit as statistically irrelevant. Maybe I’m imposing meaning. Perhaps it really is nothing more than good old fashioned bias. I, however, got into this line of work and this program because it was harder. Because for every drop of sweat you gain a tenth as much back as you might in the commercial sector, but you watch that same sweat feed a community and grow something bigger than itself. In a very Socialist way- I chose this line of work because it is hard to put ego aside and work for others.

    1. Vu Le

      Roland, I get those side-glances all the time. Usually from my family. Helping a community grow is pretty awesome. I have so many friends from the corporate sector who are envious that I get to do what I love and find meaningful each day.

  5. Lorraine Thomas

    I use a spiralizer for my veggie noodles. It’s like a Playdoh factory for food. It’s awesome. Like this post.

    1. Vu Le

      Aw, thanks, Lorraine. It’s fun to use. I need to stop spiralizing food, though, since I can’t eat that many zucchini noodles. I just like making them.

  6. Mary Cahalane


    I’ve often thought WE could teach the for-profit world a bunch of things. Like how to be scrappy and make amazing things happen on 27 cents. See how they’d deal with our working conditions, or salaries or chairs.

    Then again, we get a big fat win they don’t. The work we do really, really matters. To people who really need our help – not just our products. That’s the intangible emotional benefit that’s hard to figure when comparing salaries as if salaries measured worth.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Mary! There are a bunch of things businesses can learn from nonprofits. Sounds like a great topic for a future post (“Lesson 1: Hummus is awesome and cheap”)

  7. Ryan Ripperton

    I was reading this thinking, “Oh, man, somebody needs to say something about our own inferiority complex!” And then I read that you plan to, in fact, next week. Waiting with baited breath.

  8. Consultants4aCause

    Fantastic post. I have worked in Director and ED positions for non-profits and have worked (and currently work) in the for-profit world. I still find the for-profit world completely disengaged from real life and it is in many ways more dysfunctional than I have seen in my nonprofit work. I have seen both sides be incredibly inefficient, struggle with staffing, and have poor leadership but have also met some of the most creative and amazing people through nonprofit life. The nonprofit sector is vitally important and needs so much more understanding and resources. The downside is working in poverty for what you love doing. Thank you for your post.

    1. Vu Le

      Thank you. It’s really great to get input and affirmation from people who have been on both sides. We really should change the system so that people are not working in poverty for what they love doing.

  9. Jeanne Kojis

    Hi Vu, Love the post! I have said for years that it’s a lopsided world, I don’t go into a clothing store and offer to pay $17.50 for a skirt that’s priced $89 because I feel entitled to pay just enough to cover the ‘deliverable’ composed of the material, zipper and thread. The rest, after all, is just overhead.

    1. Vu Le

      Hi Jeanne, that’s a hilarious analogy. Yup. “I don’t want any of my $17.50 to be used to pay for the rent on this store.”

  10. Stacy Ashton

    What drives me craziest about the idea that “non-profits should act more like businesses” is all the ways we are actually not allowed to operate like businesses.

    1. No business would deliver services before a signed contract is in place, but with all our government funders we don’t see our annual contract until we are 6 months’ into delivery.

    2. No business would sign a contract that required them to give back unspent money. If a business runs more efficiently than expected, they get to keep the money they’ve saved.

    3. No business would be expected to turn a profit in the first year; you plan for your return on investment over a 5 year or more horizon.

    I would love to operate under the same rules as a business!

    1. Vu Le

      Stacy, those are all great points. Yup, it’s annoying to say we should operate like businesses and actively prevent us from having the freedom to do so. Grr…

  11. jebpgh

    Non-profit managers are, by their very nature, cowards. They will sit and grouse about the well-worn cliche about running “more like a for profit” to one another but never to their boards and certainly never in front of their funders. They heap praise on foundation directors when they know better than most that what these folks are saying is complete BS. They suck at the corporate tit and can’t raise a finger to call for more corporate responsibility. We find ourselves here because non-profit managers and executives are like a chapter meeting of the weavers of the emperor’s new clothes. You are all cowards. And you are getting exactly what you deserve for your failure to rally your base and organize your peers and challenge the prevailing wisdom of know-nothing business executives. You need to grow a pair – or two – and take on the establishment. But you won’t. You are working field hands on the plantation and so you get what you have earned – no respect, no dignity and no one really cares what you think about anything. I spent over twenty years of my life in the non-profit sector. I found what we did innovative, creative and responsive. I also found it horribly depressing when trying to rally my peers to challenge the establishment. None of you did and none of you will. I led the first organizing campaign against the United Way in Chicago and we got community organizations finally considered a legitimate part of the distribution of proceeds. It didn’t last of course but it scared the shit out of the big agencies and their corporate sponsors. Grow up, stop whining about this obvious fraud that you actively buy into as you step over your colleagues to get your share of corporate and foundation largess and fight back. Seriously folks.

  12. Mat Despard

    Great post Vu! When people say nonprofits should be more like business, my thought is always, “Oh yeah, which one? Southwest Airlines or Enron?” Both the non- and for-profit sectors are far too varied re: performance to make general statements like this.

  13. Carina Andrea Tomietto

    Very funny, and having been on both camps I can relate to the article too well. I have learnt there can be a balance between creating income in a commercial sense and filling a social or enironmental need. Perhaps the way to income sustainability in the not for profit sector is through social enterprise. No need to loose the purpose in the process. This overlap between for-profit and not-for-profit is steadily growing.

  14. Michael Schaefer

    The nonprofit world is woefully behind the times in that charities rely on archaic job descriptions. While we wear many hats, we could we wear more without losing our minds with some creative thought and team work.

    As someone who has worked on both sides, I find nonprofit leaders to be too often smug. Boards are rarely trained properly and too often just a rubber stamp for the ED or President.

    Nonprofits often don’t focus on efficiency nearly as much as they should. They are also too often not very good at developing their employees.

    Nonprofits can learn a lot from for-profit organizations, but too often don’t seem willing to do so. This is perhaps due to resistance to competition.

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