So, you don’t think you directly benefit from nonprofits


sn,x1313-bg,f8f8f8.u1Hi everyone. Before we begin today’s post, new NWB merchandise! The Nonprofit Unicorn Mantra line of products! Also, I got comments from non-nonprofit readers who felt left out, so here is some “I am a social justice unicorn” merchandise.


This week, my awesome smart audio speaker arrived. It’s really cool. I can use my voice to ask it to play music, forecast the weather, read news headlines, set the timer, add things to my calendar, and—with other devices linked to it—control the lights and other appliances in the house. Her name is Alexa, and she’s a lifesaver when I have a newborn screaming in my ears and a three-year-old dangling from my leg. Alexa also spouts pick-up lines upon request, although “Hey girl. Are you a high chair? Because I want to put a baby in you” did nothing to calm the children down.

Why do I bring this up? Because I am amazed and grateful for all the incredible stuff people come up with. I appreciate inventors and manufacturers and retailers and am happy to pay money for useful gadgets that make my life easier. For-profits are critical to society, and we nonprofit folks understand that. I don’t know a single nonprofit that makes vodka.

But it often does not seem that the appreciation is mutual. A few months ago, I wrote “Hey, you want nonprofits to act like businesses, then treat us like businesses.” The post resonated with nonprofit folks, who shared it over 25,000 times on social media. And of course, it incurred the irritation and bizsplaining from for-profit folks. Here are some actual comments:

“It’s not that you want to be treated EQUALLY, it’s that you want to be treated like you’re SPECIAL. No one cares that you want to save the world. We all want to save the world. You need to show that you have the business acumen to carry it forward — regardless of if you are a nonprofit or for profit.”

“I’ve seen non-profits with obscene amounts of money being wasted on flying people around, investing in the wrong projects[,] and organizing PR campaigns to look good in front of the donors. I’ve seen people making salaries way above what any reasonable business would pay for the amount of work they do and their skill-set.”

“So, you do not offer any products? You ask for donations, kind of like charity. I do not care what they do at Toys-R-Us because they have investors to answer to, if I am donating to a charity. I am the investor. Do not blame us for researching non-profits that use more money on programming and less on paying staff.” eye-609987_960_720

Those are enough to make me shout “Alexa, play Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day” while a single tear rolls poetically down my cheek. But it’s the comments like the following that are most concerning:

“A VC won’t sink millions into ‘complex social problems’ because he won’t DIRECTLY get anything back — even if the social problems are solved.”

“When we invest in for-profits we do so for the potential of realizing more value (thicker wallet) to us as individuals. When we donate money to Non profits we give our money with no hope of self gain. Therefore those of us who give our hard earned money have every right to judge a non profit any way we want, take as much time as we want to fund our decision, expect overhead to be as low as possible, expect that our donation does not go to an over paid CEO, that the gift will make a difference in the long haul, [etc.]”

Sigh. All right, for-profit folks, we need to have a talk. Some of you don’t seem to believe that you gain anything by supporting nonprofits. You do it out of the goodness of your own heart, like the kind, generous people that you are. When you buy a roll of toilet paper or some chocolate or subscribe to Netflix, clearly you benefit, but when you donate to a nonprofit that helps the homeless, why, that’s just you helping those poor, down-trodden families out of the goodness of your own heart, expecting nothing in return, because you’re kind and generous.

I know I’m being snarky, mainly because I just watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones and yet another good character gets killed. There are tons of awesome for-profit people who are not condescending and paternalistic (thank you!). But this philosophy of “we don’t benefit directly from the work of nonprofits” seems to be prevalent in our society, and it’s been leading to no-good, very-bad things like restricted funding and fear of overhead and unwillingness to pay for nonprofit professionals’ salaries.

Well, let me tell you something, my for-profit friends. Just because you can’t hold or see something does not mean you do not benefit from it. All of us benefit more from nonprofits’ work than we’ll ever know. If you feel safe walking down the street, it’s probably because there are nonprofits working on neighborhood safety and providing services to those who need help. If you appreciate all the free art and music all around you, it’s probably because there are nonprofits supporting kick-ass artists and musicians in the community. If you like parks and clean air, it’s probably because there are nonprofits focused on making sure there are green spaces and recycling and clean transportation. If you like organic food, there’s probably a bunch of nonprofits fighting hard for policies around labeling and GMO.

bubble-gum-438404_960_720I could go on. In fact, I will. If you or anyone you love have a serious illness, there’s probably a nonprofit working hard to find the cure. If you love someone of a different race or the same sex or gender, there have been and still are nonprofits fighting for your rights to be in the same room or use the same water fountains. If you have a company and you hire people, you probably benefited from nonprofits’ work because many of us support young people to graduate from school and to reach their potential. If you’re happy that your favorite political candidate got elected, there were probably nonprofits educating people about voting and other civic duties. If you love to travel, there are NGOs working to remove landmines and preserve historical sites and otherwise make your trips enjoyable or even possible. If you or your kids enjoy learning about animals or dinosaurs or airplanes or history, keep in mind that zoos and museums are nonprofits. If you go to a dentist or a mechanic, they may have learned a thing or two in our after-school, or sports, or mentorship programs and that may have contributed in some part to their success.  

Heck, if you haven’t stepped in any gum lately, it may be because some of us are helping teach kids about littering.

The challenge is that nonprofit work is often like air: people take it for granted because we do not see it and we don’t take much time to think about it until it is no longer there. You don’t think you’ll lose your job and your home, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits that provide employment services, or that build low-income housing, or that run food banks. You don’t think your parents will ever age and feel lonely, so you don’t appreciate the senior centers. You don’t think you’ll end up with a disability, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits that work tirelessly to make sure buildings are accessible. You don’t think your kids will ever get bullied, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits working to end bullying. You don’t think you’ll lose a loved one, and so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits that do grief counseling. You don’t think you’ll be wrongly convicted of a crime and jailed, so you don’t appreciate the nonprofits working to prove people’s innocence.meal-843230_960_720

It is human nature to take things for granted. Nonprofit work is like air, and for-profit stuff seems more like food: You can touch food, and smell it, and taste it. It’s in your face. There are “foodies,” but no one ever claims to be an “airie.” But guess what, you benefit plenty from air, just as you benefit from the work that we nonprofits do each day, and you may not even realize it. Yes, not all of us are perfect; there are irresponsible nonprofits, just like there are irresponsible for-profits. If you look down on nonprofits, think about what kind of society we would have if we didn’t have nonprofits taking care of the above challenges, and ask yourself if you want you or your kids to live in that world.

Now that I have kids, I have an even deeper appreciation for all of my colleagues in the field. When I donate whatever amount of money or time that I can to a nonprofit, I don’t think of it as charity or compassion. I don’t think, “They should be grateful for this.” I am grateful because these organizations are working each day to build the kind of community—the kind of safe, beautiful, just world—that I want my kids to grow up in.

We live in a community together, and we each have our roles to play to make this whole thing work. Both food and air are necessary for survival. And both for-profits and nonprofits, as well as government, are critical to a well-functioning society. For-profits do awesome stuff, such as create episodes of Game of Thrones as well as the TVs on which I can watch them, along with the beer I need to imbibe to get through one more favorite character’s death or imprisonment. We do not take for granted what businesses add to the world. Please return the favor. Because until you can say, “Alexa, make the world safe, beautiful, and just,” you’re going to need us nonprofits.

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30 thoughts on “So, you don’t think you directly benefit from nonprofits

  1. Simona

    I come from a different perspective on transfer of wealth (known to some US republican politicians as “the European nightmare”). The thing is, non-profits will never be as “business-minded” as businesses because, well, they are not. The comments you received above from businesses are very valid. I don’t expect corporate funding to bring more than a small share of non-profits’ funding. Why would they? The benefits, while clear to you and me – both non-profit people – are meaningless to them because they are too abstract and indirect.

    What I expect is for businesses to pay taxes (proper taxes, not US-style), which can then be distributed by the government into social services, some of which it delivers directly and some through non-profits. Even the poorer members of the EU have various programs through which non-profits can get such funds by submitting quality applications, not by knocking, hat-in-hand, at the door of corporations which don’t care. Most of these countries also have programs whereby individual taxpayers can choose to redirect a small (usually 1% or 2%) share of their income tax to a non-profit of their choice; the government collects the money and distributes it to the accounts of these non-profits once a year.

    Is this system perfect? Hell, no. Are there still plenty of non-profits struggling to make ends meet? Hell, yeah. But it’s still a leap from what you’re describing. Maybe something to rally support around and advocate for in the US? You’d be accused of communism, to be sure. Anything that threatens to dent the hefty profits of large corporations has been treated as such and silenced for decades. But look at the results: quality of life continues to decrease it the US. At this point, low- and lower-middle-income families in Eastern Europe are probably enjoying better lives – and better chances for their children to get education.

    1. Midwest Grantwriter

      I agree. But I also think for-profits should pay their fair share. Minimum wage workers often have no choice but to rely on nonprofits for support because their paychecks just don’t stretch far enough. If for-profits don’t like the way we “do business” they should step up to the plate and make us obsolete.

      1. Simona

        So maybe something is wrong with the minimum wage. “Minimum” should be sufficient for decent living and should be accompanied by public services such as free or affordable healthcare, education etc. The role of non-profits in a healthy system is to catch people who fall through the cracks or who need temporary support to get back on their feet.

    2. Paula Penebaker

      I love the writer’s perspective, but “The benefits, while clear to you and me – both non-profit people – are
      meaningless to them because they are too abstract and indirect” is (to me) TRUE. Having transferred from Caesar’s house (corporate world) to the world of nonprofits, I agree 100% with your perspective.

  2. Judy Levine

    There’s a concept we teach in fundraising – that I learned at the feet of my predecessors 25 years ago – called “enlightened self-interest” – that’s relevant here. I was just preparing a new curriculum and making a new slide for this concept, so it’s in the forefront of my mind!

    Basically it means that the pitch in fundraising is not “Give us money so other people will benefit” – because there’s no connection in that pitch for the donor. If you do get funding that way, it’s simply based on quid pro quo and isn’t repeatable apart from the particular solicitor.

    But it’s also not simply “Give us money so you will benefit” – because if you could raise all the money you need from the direct recipients of your services, you would just charge high enough fees and be done with it (and probably not be a not-for-profit!). The recipients of your services can (and should) give, sure, but not enough to cover the full costs.

    So the answer is to speak to a donor’s enlightened self interest – “Give us money so that something you care about, a benefit that you want to see happen in the world – is furthered.” You have to speak to someone’s sense of themselves as part of a larger society, where it matters to them that kids grow up to be employable with fulfilling lives (and become better corporate employees, which is why so many corporations give to youth charities); or as part of a city in which trees on every block contributes to better-smelling (i.e. cleaner) air and kids with less asthma, etc.

    Agreed about the tax structure, but Bernie (and Kim Klein’s efforts) aside, we’re a long long way from changing the tax structure to shift the burden on nonprofits over to the government. Which is why I’m in social justice fundraising – it’s the next best (and, I think, most achievable) way to achieve social good by equitable social investment.

  3. Jennifer Laurie

    Oh you have no idea how much this made my day. I think about this issue constantly because it is the area of my work I am most committed to change. I like a challenge apparently….

  4. Mehitabel

    Very well said. I know more than a few people who could stand to read this post. Just a couple of days ago I got into a huge argument with a friend who makes it a point of honor never to give a dime to nonprofit organizations because she firmly believes that they don’t do anyone any good at all, especially not her.

    I think you may have misconstrued one of the ‘bizsplaining’ comments, though. When someone says “I’ve seen non-profits with obscene amounts of money being wasted on flying people around, investing in the wrong projects and organizing PR campaigns to look good in front of the donors…” — well, I don’t necessarily see that as coming from a POV that this is someone who doesn’t see him/herself as benefiting from the work of nonprofits. I think that’s a different issue entirely. That’s coming from someone who has seen such behavior on the part of a certain type of nonprofit (most likely one of those huge “too-big-to-fail” outfits whose primary mission seems to be fundraising rather than delivering services). I won’t name names, but several years ago I attended a conference hosted by one of those huge nonprofits, and they hired a live, professional circus act to entertain their attendees at a party that had to have cost them tens of thousands of dollars. It was quite off-putting. That kind of thing is a real disincentive to donate my paltry-but-very-hard-earned money to such an organization — or at the very least you can bet if I do make a gift, it’s going to be restricted to the delivery of programs and services. But feeling that way doesn’t mean I don’t fully understand how I have benefited, and continue to benefit, from the work of nonprofits.

  5. Carol Clarke

    Excellent article. Vu, you are making Mondays entertaining and enlightening. Thank you!! (I wish you were my dating coach…)

  6. MThompson

    Thanks for this, Vu. Have you written (or can you please write) about the myth of overpaid nonprofit leaders? Sure, there are a handful who fit this description, but somehow those few have become representative of the entire industry. (Raise your hand if you are an overpaid ED. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)

    1. betty barcode

      Amen. It is like being punitive towards authors in general, most of whom don’t even earn minimum wage for the time they put into their books, because J.K. Rowling is a millionaire.

    2. Mehitabel

      I am always interested in knowing what the gap is between the CEO’s pay and the pay of, say, an administrative assistant or of a program coordinator. I’ve seen organizations where the CEO is making as much as ten times what the lowest-paid staffers are making. It’s particularly a problem in organizations where those who are actually delivering the programs and services are the lowest paid, or among the lowest paid, in the organization. I have worked in NPOs where there were program staff with master’s degrees — which were required for their jobs — making $15-$17 per hour (around $30-$35K per year, give or take). That’s bad enough in and of itself, but when they were making $35K per year and the CEO’s salary was somewhere in the neighborhood of $150K per year… now that, to me, indicated a real problem. So for me the issue of whether or not a CEO’s pay is excessive is relative.

  7. Mary Cahalane

    Once again, you hit the nail right on the head.

    Nonprofits are not part of some do-goody netherword that the rest of society can safely ignore. We’re a big part of society. And so long as there are people who need help – education, food, housing – even art (yes, it matters) – there will be a need for our “product”.

    Thank you again, Vu. (But I didn’t see the show last night, so now you’ve got me worried!)

  8. robert egger

    There’s No Profits Without Nonprofits…simply, factual economic reality. Try enticing business to locate in your city, or people to move there if you don’t have healthcare, education, communities of faith, arts and culture, clean air and water, etc. YOU CAN’T. It’s time for nonprofits to own that fact, and challenge the notion that all we are entitled too is donations (left over profits). We are equal to, and just as important as, any for-profit business in the new global economy.

  9. Carolyn Owens

    YES! A dramatic single tear is running down my cheek and I’m yelling to hear “We are the Champions” but alas, no voice activated radio to respond. SPOT ON VU! You are the nonprofit champion!

  10. Dawn Veillette Diana

    “Therefore those of us who give our hard earned money have every right to judge a non profit any way we want, take as much time as we want to fund our decision, expect overhead to be as low as possible, expect that our donation does not go to an over paid CEO, . . .”

    Can there be a checkbox on all of my bills that says “I do not want any of my bill payment to be used for your executives’ highly over-inflated salaries”????

    1. Mehitabel

      Personally I would like to see a checkbox on my tax return that says that I decline to have any of my taxes be used to pay for Congressional salaries.

  11. Denise Fosse

    I cannot tell you how glad I am to have read this article. I get so tired of the we versus them mentality, when the we that is referred to is the 1% of a population that is watching a rapid decline in the well-being of the 99%. Here are three things that I want to communicate to for-profits:
    1. People are not widgets and therefore do not conform to the traditional business model we espouse in the United States.
    2. The traditional business model we espouse in the United States is so highly related to the old plantation system and needs to be re-thought and re-done.
    3. Be grateful that more people who are oppressed, overlooked and ignored have gratefully accepted the kindness of strangers rather than rebel completely.

  12. Timothy Delaney

    Ah, Vu, il miglior fabbro – once again, you hit it out of the park. Thank you. I appreciate you.

  13. Mark Crawford

    Capitalism itself is not possible – cannot be successful or sustainable – without a healthy and robust not for profit sector. Every societal/economic construct must have a mechanism for dealing with “need”. (Recognizing that the all encompassing construct of the “NFP sector” is far too broad and does an injustice to the field itself, but for the sake of this particular discussion, accepting it as a valid descriptor), our capacity for delivering services to address the needs that the capitalist model cannot deliver is essential for the viability of capitalism. I cringe from the idea we should be more “like” the for profit model but heartily embrace the idea that there are beneficial practices in each sector that would improve the potential of the other. Perhaps I date myself by using this term, but it is the synergy of the two sectors complementing each other that makes our particular economic and social structure possible.

  14. Laura W.

    I frequently read posts and think, “This is Vu’s best one yet. He’ll never do better than this.” and then you do. Thank you for this insightful and nuanced commentary.

    The next time you’re in Minneapolis, make sure to order a Finnegans []. They’re a nonprofit brewery; all the money they earn goes to feeding the hungry. They also have a reverse food truck they send out when it’s requested.

  15. DK

    I realize the article (which I enjoyed) isn’t about compensation, but I’m going to respectfully take a moment to disagree with the examples cited below as excessive CEO pay in this thread. Compensation in non-profits isn’t a simple black and white issue.

    Evaluating the gap between what a line staff member is paid and what the CEO is paid can be a useful tool, but it is a simplistic one. Is that CEO earning $150k (cited below in a prior comment, at a NFP with program staffers earning $30-35k) running an organization of 10 staff, in a low cost-of-living community, and their salary is anomalously high compared to all the other non-profit directors in their field of work and in their community? Then yes, there could be an over-compensation problem there.

    Or is that CEO cited below running an organization of 100 staff, in a high
    cost-of-living city, and their $150k salary is actually low compared to peer
    CEOs in their field and in their community? Then that CEO might actually be
    underpaid. And the Board who set the compensation might be endangering their mission and squandering their success by underpaying the market for talented leadership.

    And ditto for those program staff making $30-35k. They could be underpaid, or overpaid… depending.

    Let’s start by acknowledging that many positions at a large non-profit, or a small one, have a fairly finite deviation of workload and complexity. For example, running an education program at a small non-profit is very hard work… but running it at a large one isn’t exponentially harder (and in fact, if there are better resources and support systems at the larger non-profit, it might even be easier). However the same is not true for organizational leadership. Leading a small non-profit is hard work… but leading one that is ten times the size is exponentially more complicated and harder work, requiring a very different set of leadership and business skills. This is why CEO pay deviates more than, say, educator pay. That is the reason program staff at a small education nfp or a large one in the same city are going to be paid similarly… but the CEOs are likely to be paid very different amounts.

    There is also huge variation in NFP compensation based on the skill sets and economic norms of the non-profit field in question. Are we talking about the CEO of a major foodbank? Or CEO of a major art museum? Guess what… they pay very differently, for a reason. Economics, demand, the market for effective leadership, the norms of that nfp field, the kinds of board members involved and their own social and philanthropic norms, the skillset of the CEO, experience of the individual in question, education… they all factor in. And they should!

    So the landscape of compensation is complicated. But there are tools we can use to evaluate what is reasonable. There are many compensation data sources, salary surveys, and the like we can all use to evaluate whether the pay offered any given leader is reasonable. Which is exactly what good non-profit Boards do–it is their fiduciary duty to ensure the CEO salary is “fair and
    reasonable” per the copious guidelines the IRS publishes.

    And ultimately, I would argue, the most important metric (and evaluation tool) for compensation of leadership comes down to PERFORMANCE. Let’s imagine a non-profit which has done all its due diligence to establish that the
    appropriate salary for its CEO is $150k.

    Is that $150k CEO leading a talented staff in creating a robust, healthy, sustainable organization whose mission is succeeding and fundraising growing? Has she/he become the face of their cause in their community, bringing in talent, growing resources, establishing amazing relationships with donors, and bringing attention and results to the organization? Then guess what… she/he may actually be underpaid, even if she/he is among the highest paid amongst NFPs in their field or city. Alternately, what if that same organization was run by an ineffective CEO? One who is mis-managing that same talented staff, enabling poor performance, barely making payroll, struggling to define mission, irritating donors with mis-directed
    efforts, spending their time in the weeds telling the staff how to do their
    jobs, and squandering resources because of mis-management? Clearly, that same Board is hugely overpaying their $150k CEO.

    My point being, the difference between an effective CEO and an unsuccessful one is huge, and can be absolutely critical for a non-profit… and we in the non-profit world often seem to confuse “cost effective” with “cheap.”
    Yes CEO compensation needs to be realistic, and reasonable… but it also makes no sense for a non-profit board to undershoot the market, because they are then likely to get less effective leadership.

    Let’s not use simplistic, divisive examples to make points about a complex and nuanced issue, folks.

  16. The NFP Nerd

    Long time fanboy, first time commenting. Love this Vu and am sharing like a deranged person.

    My takeaway was probably a little off point (that non-profit detractors who can’t spot the value the sector generates by the megaton are shortsighted, at best.)

    I loved this: “We live in a community together, and we each have our roles to play to make this whole thing work.”

    Forget the external nay-sayers looking in for a moment. It can be so easy to get so caught up in what we’re doing for the “the community” (in the abstract) that we forget that we create specific communities right where we work. We should be building workplace cultures internally that make our own lives as rich as possible, that we are best place to go out into the world and show those non-profit poo-pooers what’s what!

Comments are closed.