Dear business people, please stop bizsplaining things to us nonprofit folks


ra,unisex_tshirt,x3104,fafafa ca443f4786,front-c,650,630,900,975-bg,f8f8f8Hi everyone, before we get into today’s topic, look, NWB merchandise is on sale!

All right, business pals, we need to have another talk. First of all, I love y’all. I just moved into a new house this week, and spent time at a hardware store trying to find these little thingies that hold up the shelves in my kitchen cabinets. They’re called “shelf pins,” and you can move them to different holes to lower or raise the shelves. Without some business somewhere making these little pins, my liquor cabinet would not be able to fit my really tall bottles of vodka and it would just look awful. So yes, I am deeply appreciative for all the businesses out there doing all sorts of useful, interesting, and important stuff. I am glad you exist, and I am glad to pay money for the stuff you make and do. Especially vodka.

But dude, the condescension needs to stop. Recently, I’ve noticed it has been in the form of explaining to us simple nonprofit bumpkins just how much better off we’d be if we just acted more like for-profit businesses. Sometimes it is conscious, most times it is not, but always it is irritating. One time, I was showing a potential board member our Saturday morning program, which served 150 kids. It was his first visit, and he launched into a lecture about having a business plan. “We have a three-year strategic plan,” I said, and before I could elaborate, he interrupted to explain what a business plan was. He interrupted several times to explain various Important Business Concepts to me.A colleague, Allison Carney, wrote a blog post and calls this phenomenon “bizsplaining.” (#bizsplaining) It is business people “talking to nonprofit staff like they have never successfully operated a blender, let alone worked (successfully) in their underpaid, understaffed, and completely vital position for years.” Here are other examples from my personal experience:

“I don’t understand why your revenue sources fluctuate so much every year. At [the Fortune 500 corporation I work at], our revenues are very predictable.”hangover-323035_960_720“We asked for $50K to redesign our website, and when we brought it up to senior management, they liked our plan so much they gave us an additional $25K. So you never know!” (This was actually a workshop I attended at a nonprofit conference a few years back).

“You should try to open a side business. Like my church, it sells sausages every weekend!”

“What’s the ROI for your program? Do you know what…uh, ROI is…?”

Look, y’all, just because you’re great at something, does not mean that you’re automatically great at a completely different thing, all right? Just because you’re an awesome carpenter, it doesn’t mean you’re now by default also an amazing beatboxer and have any legitimacy to give advice: “You know, your beatboxing would sound better if you wear goggles. When I do carpentry, I always wear goggles.”

Nonprofits and for-profits are different, so unless you have experience working in a nonprofit, stop assuming you know stuff. Like Allison says, “Just because you worked at a wealth management firm for ten years does not mean you know how to run my food bank.” I’ve written about these differences in many posts. But I want to reiterate a few key points to help you really understand what we are dealing with that you business peeps may not have to deal with. Let’s use, as an example, something that many of us have, the iPhone. Imagine if we put the same restrictions on Apple that many nonprofits face:

Overhead and Restricted Funding: “I would like to buy an iPhone. How much is that? $700? OK, fine, here you go. But, I don’t want more than $100 to be used to pay for your employees’ wages; I want most of my money to go to computer chips and other materials. I also don’t want you to use more than $70 on your rent, insurance, electricity for this store, or research and development because I don’t want to buy from a store that has more than 10% in overhead. After one year, you need to report to me exactly what my $700 paid for.”

Sustainability Myth: “Hey, I hear the iPhone 6S is totally awesome! You have some on sale? Cool! But…how will you keep your operations going after I buy an iPhone 6S and I am no longer here? How do you guarantee that you will be here selling iPhones to other customers? What is your plan to not be so dependent on customers? Sorry, but although I hear great things about your phone, I can only buy phones from stores that I know will survive and be around for the long run.”

Track Record/Outcomes: “You sold 300 million units of iPhones and made a gazillion dollars? That’s great, but that’s an output, not an outcome. What impact did you make? Did you measure how owning an iPhone has transformed the lives of customers? Did they access more educational opportunities? Did family members feel a stronger sense of connection to each other? Did owning iPhones reduce the crime rates, and if so, how much money did society save by having fewer people visit the emergency room? Did you do a pre-and-post-purchase survey and have a comparison group of people who did not use an iPhone? Also, can you disaggregate these results into race, ethnicity, gender, age, and geography?” (Thanks to colleague Matthew Turner for inspiring this paragraph. Here is a related post: Imagine if Apple Had to Run Like a Nonprofit).

Those are just some of the challenges we face. If you didn’t know that’s what it’s like, or if you didn’t understand any of that, then you have little ground to give advice. Despite these and myriad other challenges, nonprofits all over the world continue to survive and do their important and complex work. We are like metal shelf pins, helping to lift up the shelves in the cabinets of community.

This does not mean that we nonprofits don’t have things to learn from you for-profits. We do, but let’s agree that have things to learn from each other. We appreciate your support and encouragement and know you mean well, but before you start #bizsplaining things to us simple, ignorant nonprofit kids, please spend some time actually listening, learning, and understanding context.

Also, maybe try a little more humility. I got into a discussion with someone regarding nonprofits’ unfairly being asked to act more like businesses without having access to the same flexibility and resources. His solution: Nonprofits should be more “startuppy.” That’s an idea to consider. But you do realize that 90% of start-ups fail, right? Heck, over half of all businesses fail in general, and 46% of that can be attributed to INCOMPETENCE, according to this.

I don’t point that out to be glib, because, again, for-profit businesses are awesome, and we rely on you to do our jobs, and failure is a critical part of the process. That’s why we nonprofits don’t come up to you and say things like, “Hey, you know what you businesses should do? Have more group discussions about why you fail so often. Maybe do something we like to call ‘brainstorming.’ Have you heard of it? And make sure there’s hummus, because hummus has lots of protein, good for cognitive functions. We nonprofits have hummus at our brainstorms all the time.”

We don’t often nonprofitsplain, so please extend the same courtesy and stop the #bizsplaining. Thanks for considering.

Your nonprofit pals.

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page and enter in your email address. Also, join the NWB Facebook community for daily hilarity. 

Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.


31 thoughts on “Dear business people, please stop bizsplaining things to us nonprofit folks

  1. Melissa B

    In addition to them not understanding the nonprofit world, can we also point out that some of us actually have business degrees (undergrad and MBAs) and therefore have some of the same educational background and a lot of the same skill set as the business people who assume that we have no management training or experience? (Except that in addition to those business degrees we also probably have at least one other Master’s related to nonprofit/ international development topics as well).

  2. Niresh

    Ah Maan! I’m forwarding this to the CEO of the NGO that I worked with earlier. He of course is one of those “I-know-everything-cos-I’ve-been-a-corporate-honcho-all-of-my-life-while-you-NGO-types-dont-know-shit” types! When will these guys realise?!?

  3. Amanda Kepner

    Well put as usual.
    Can I start by pointing out that you moved into a new house with a new born?? Way to pile on the stress…no wonder the liquor cabinet was assembled so quickly.

    A well meaning business professor at a large, local university donated her time for almost a year to help my NPO (specifically my department) develop a business plan (because apparently we needed that?). I spent days and days compiling information for her and she pumped out a lovely 30 page report, that no one understands or has read completely. Yet we still do great work all the clearly we didn’t need that business plan after all – thanks anyway?

  4. MBU'town

    First off, I need to shake my fist at you for making me realize how much I need to drop my Oxford comma and second space after my periods to better utilize my 46 character limit on a grant application. (46 characters!?! Are you freakin’ kidding me?!?)
    Vodka has been my NFP friend for many years. Now that I’m in KY I’m considering a bottle of “Drawer Bourbon”, like they used to have in the olden days. But some days I think I’d just drop a straw in it and go to town. But that would be an old school business practice, right?
    I’m struggling right now with a grant report that a foundation funded by casinos wants us to produce. “An attractive report is appreciated by our committee”. Photos, videos and examples of all of the ways that we’ve acknowledged them in the media are encouraged. Um, sure…um…we’ll take some flashy dynamic video of the new phones and laptops we purchased. We’ll hire clowns, show girls, performing animals, an Elvis impersonator and then try to explain that expense to our board and other funders. But, yes, we should be more like businesses. I…ugh…grrrrr…smergensherder…Dammit! Now I’m just making up words!!

  5. House0fTheBlueLights

    “What is your plan to not be so dependent on customers”

    Coffee Spewed on the Keyboard Award of the morning

    1. Bob Altizer

      How many non-profit performing arts organizations make enough on program income from their audience (customers) to cover all their expenses?

      Go ahead, take your time. I’ll wait until you can name one.

  6. Jill Sheldon

    Thanks for your humor and wisdom on this cloudy Monday morning. It’s the first thing I read every week. One of the things I tell boards at retreats I facilitate (I’m a consultant) is that nonprofits ARE businesses. A different tax status does not mean that we don’t run like a business.

    1. Jen Moore

      Jill, I agree. Speaking as someone who worked in the for-profit world before coming into the nonprofit world (and as Melissa referenced above, have my MBA), nonprofits ARE businesses. We do have a profit margin: it’s called mission. The more margin, the more mission we can accomplish.

      However, I can also say there are also … various degrees of sophistication … among our nonprofit peers when it comes to leadership, management, and administration, which are distinct skill sets, in my opinion. Passion alone will take a mission incredible distances. Combine that with leadership savvy, technical management know-how and administration expertise, and well, buckle up and hang on because truly amazing outputs and outcomes will happen!

  7. Parisa Parsa

    I would also like to poke some holes in the myth that businesses have their act together. We have been dealing with vendors related to a move, and can’t believe the lack of response time/incorrect information/miscalculations of cost/lack of customer service in everything from our designer to the furniture sales companies to the tech setup providers. My admin manager and I look at each other and go “wow, and we thought nonprofits were flaky!” We could never get away with this behavior and keep funding.

  8. verucaamish

    I think every discussion with a for-profit person needs to start with, “let me explain the context in which I am working.” If they don’t want to hear that, the conversation is over.

  9. Joseph Fung

    Great post – love the example of nposplaining…I imagine there’s a whole host of them that would help get the point across. ..”You have revenue problems? You should try a golf tournament. My last organization ran them every year – it was one of our biggest revenue generators. Don’t forget to get hole sponsors”….”You are struggling with your web marketing? Just post an ad for a volunteer. I’m sure you can find an independent or contractor that can volunteer the hours in return for the networking and exposure”…”Why are you using! What you need is a proper Donor Management System.”

  10. Julia Foster

    I love this post, Vu! The advice to “be more like businesses” is completely antithetical to “keep your overhead ridiculously low.” When those same businesses can operate sufficiently on WAY-old computer technology, ridiculously limited staff, low salaries, limited benefits, and still keep on smiling and being productive…then we’ll talk. I’d also add that the business-minded impetus that pushed many nonprofits (on the strong advice of their boards) into taking low-interest bonds in the early 2000s, or more aggressively investing endowment funds in the markets, is the same one that left many non-profits shattered in the late 2000s after the recession. And yet I’ve seen boards blame the non-profit management for their poor oversight and now dire straights as they try to dig out of the debt hole. Sigh. Thanks for the smiles today. And hope the new home brings you much joy!

  11. LeighzArts

    Thank you for this posting, brought a smile to my face on this gloomy Monday morning.

    I’m a graduate student going for my Masters in Nonprofit Management and Leadership, and your postings have been insightful. I was in the for-profit world up until 4 months ago. Now I’m working in a nonprofit museum and couldn’t be happier. My passion has always been helping others and to me, nonprofits do that every single day.
    For-profits at the end of the year or throughout the year may say, let’s donate $ to ” ” organization. That donation may make a huge impact on an organization and many lives, but it’s not the same impact that a nonprofit organization makes every single day, in lives all around the world. Our businesses are ran differently because our outcomes aren’t about money, their about continuing to accomplish our mission (helping others whom need help).

    Good luck with your new baby and new home! 🙂

    Attached is a photo of my new addition. 12 weeks.

  12. Christy Qualle

    Great topic, Vu. Coming from the business side – I couldn’t agree more. One of the things that I see in working with nonprofits is that people can underestimate how good they are at what they do. So often they are blazing a trail, working with limited resources, or splitting time between so many job roles that it isn’t surprising that a business person walking in would misread that situation and go into Type-A overdrive. For me, working alongside them and helping support in areas where they have questions is inspiring because I love the depth of their passion. I think it definitely is on the business person to listen to the needs and goals of the nonprofit and see how to adapt their experience to fit. I would also encourage nonprofits to do what you just did, Vu, and take the reins about what you do and don’t need and be specific about what is important to you and how you work. There is absolutely a place for business people to support nonprofits, but it will make make both sides feel much more satisfied if those objectives are driven by the nonprofit, rather than an external person.

  13. Brad Langford

    I am a lawyer, and so do not really understand either business or nonprofits. I mostly try to explain rules that do not make much sense to people who are annoyed by these mostly annoying rules. I am only sort of qualified to help with governance issues, which are mostly boring and distracting rules. What I can say is that much of traditional business analysis is way too short term focused to be useful to either business or nonprofits. What I like to know about a nonprofit is what are they accomplishing with the money that they are using. I am always curious about overhead, but try not to obsess about this. I am suspicious of both nonprofits and businesses when I cannot understand what they do. I am especially suspicious when a business or nonprofit spends a lot of money and does not seem to do anything that I can understand. However, I do not dare to tell a non profit or business how to do what they do better. If I cannot understand what a business or nonprofit does that is useful or helpful, and no one can explain to me what it does that is useful or helpful, I will not donate to it or invest in it.

    1. funkynewname

      First, “I… do not really understand either business…” and then, wait for it, wait, wait… “What I can say is that much of traditional business analysis is way too short term focused”

      Oh, that so beautifully distills the dominant culture today. “Hey, I really have no education, experience, or insight into this topic, but I can tell you what they are doing wrong!”

      1. Brad Langford

        Fair comments, Funky.

        I was joking about not knowing much about business or nonprofits. I am a business news junkie. I have twenty five years of involvement in nonprofit board and volunteering. I agree that the “I don’t know anything about this topic, but I am going to talk about it anyways” is a stupid and overrused way of starting a discussion, but I was trying to be funny.

        The point behind my initial joke/comment is that my legal training is often not useful in analyzing the operational structures of businesses and non profits.By the same token, business training and experience is not always helpful in analyzing the operations of nonprofits. I am trained to analyze risk and governance weaknesses in nonprofits and businesses, however. I try to limit most of my board input to these areas, and in planned giving, where I have an interest and background.

        I agree with the point that forcing nonprofits to “act more like a business” is often unfair, when they are often underfunded and forced to operate under too many restrictions. I firmly believe as well that an undue focus on overhead is often crippling to nonprofits and their mission.

        I do believe that business people can provide useful advice (and money) to nonprofits, and that nonprofits should try not to be too sensitive about comments from business people, who are usually trying to help, albeit sometimes in a clumsy way. Many, if not all, nonprofits are underfunded to do their work efficiently. This is not usually their fault. Telling them to become self sustaining is not helpful. It does point out an issue in the sector, however, in that there does not appear to be enough money to go around. This can be remedied by either reducing the number of nonprofits chasing the available money, or increasing the amount of the money, or some of both.

      2. Dan

        You’re tough, huh, funkynewname? That what you want to hear? Ooh, what a big tough troll you are. Please, rein down some of your business wisdoms on us peons. We are so grateful to be trolled by someone whose name or profession we will never know.

        Anyway, since you are an expert in business, I presume you satisfied all the daily demands your company required of you when you were barking at Brad here? Don’t you have a Q4 spreadsheet you need to jerk off to?

  14. Ombeady

    When my (former) nonprofit was having financial trouble, the response of the business members on the board was to cut all of the fundraising staff, because they weren’t delivering programs and you have to cut staff, after all. Astonishing!

  15. Nick Demola

    I love this. I entered the non-profit space three years ago after 15 years in the private sector. I laughed and nodded with the whole thing.

    However, I think the one lesson that I wish non-profits would learn from business is this… Just because you’ve always used that consultant, just because you’ve always seen success with one method, that doesn’t mean it’s the right way. I think non-profits should think like entrepreneurs more than a lot of them do.

    But again, this is spot on.

  16. Linda Rogers

    Great article as usual and it actually suggests two additional articles that I was thinking of writing but why do that if I can get Vu to do it?

    Seriously, one subject is the importance having a balance of business people and people with non-profit experience on your Board is very important. When it is all Corporate types you can really get the kind of disconnects that you are mentioning here. For example having risk-assessments mandated because your art is “controversial” :-). Or having the Board fail to understand that programming that sells the most tickets in theatres and symphony halls is the very type of funding that will attract fewer dollars from grants, and the things that grants will fund will tend to be less saleable (like new opera for example) so you might as well do things on mission and scale your budget accordingly.

    On another related topic, there are some pretty dismal tales from organizations that imported a CEO from the corporate world. I had the misfortune to serve under such a leader in a major US symphony. Fresh from business leadership in Detroit’s auto sector, he tried to teach us all to lead a classical orchestra, and in the process pushed some of the most talented and dedicated music professionals out the door while hiring a lot of low-brow yes-men and yes-women, that didn’t make him feel like an idiot. The culture went from civilized and professional to something like a Reality TV show within 2 years. Eventually the organization righted itself and fired him but not before there was a lot of damage done to both the organization and individuals.

  17. Bob Altizer

    Q: “How much does it cost for one concert production cycle?”
    A: “I don’t know, I guess you could look through the checks written around that time.”

    Q: “How much will you need to put on all the events you plan for the season?”
    A: “I don’t know, nobody’s ever asked before and we’ve always had enough.”

    Q: “What does your audience think about your programs and their quality?”
    A: “They always clap at the end of a show – doesn’t that mean they liked it?”

    Q: “Who are your biggest donors and what do you do to keep them?”
    A: “Mostly our founders. Don’t worry, they always come through in a pinch.”

    Bizsplaining is one thing, encouraging business-like operations is another. Don’t think that because you can lampoon the former you can get away without the latter.

  18. funkynewname

    This is an unnecessary rant with another throw away term “bizsplaining”. Is “bizsplaining” yet another “shut down” term that people are hoping to toss out to stop all conversations that make them uncomfortable, I mean “unsafe”.x

    Bad managers are out there. Narrow-minded, overconfident people are out there. People who don’t listen are out there. But good business people with years in the trenches in the for-profit world can provide excellent insights. And I’ve met quite a few cocky non-profit types who simply don’t want to listen and learn. Yes, cocky, because there are some who just hide behind the term “non-profit” to avoid addressing difficult issues. “Non-profit” is a set of definitions in the tax code. Some non-profits are more like operating businesses than others. Some non-profits destroy net social value. Many non-profits address things that are not well-addresses in the “marketplace”. Some non-profits are corrupt. Some are lazy. Some are highly charged, focused, and keen to do great things. Etc.

  19. Kathy Evans CEO/CE

    This strikes a really powerful chord (with great humour) for us non-profits ‘across the pond’ in the UK too! Sometimes the real problems we face are best distilled with this kind of humour…thank you so much!

    This was my own attempt (no humour, sorry) to encourage the sector to reclaim our distinctive difference, role, function and ‘ways of doing’ from both ‘bizsplaining’ and the parallel expectations that we should be just like public services and government

  20. MeganCossey

    It is funny and yet also hugely problematic … very similar to the way rich people these days have decided they actually know how to educate kids better than the actual educators, so they throw their piles of money behind charter schools and for-profit testing companies … which by itself whatever, but alas these initiatives also divert public money from education and hamper the ability and effectiveness of those rare educators who have yet to throw their hands up in despair and frustration and quit to pursue a career in … well anything these days that isn’t being a public school teacher.

  21. Joel R. Putnam

    “You know, your beatboxing would sound better if you wear goggles. When I do carpentry, I always wear goggles.”


    I am going to quote this. A lot.

Comments are closed.