The game of nonprofit is flawed. Learn to play it so you can change it. 

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[Image description: A raccoon, grayish brown, peeking over a thick tree branch, staring directly at the camera with its piercing dark eyes. Image from Pixabay.com]

Every once a while, an up-and-coming nonprofit professional would ask me, “What advice would you give us folks who are just starting in the sector?” This is how you know that you yourself are no longer an up-and-coming nonprofit professional. I am trying to embrace my status as one of the grizzled old-timers with the battle scars:

“When I entered the sector years ago, we had to walk five miles—in the snow!—to deliver a grant proposal. Back then, paperclips weren’t invented, and funders wanted the attachments to be clipped just right. We had to make paperclips out of pine needles. But, there were only eight pine trees west of the Mississippi, and they were fiercely guarded by vicious raccoons. I can still see their beady eyes, glowing red like those sticky dots people used to vote with during community meetings. Of course, back then, the sticky dots weren’t just something you bought at the store. They were gum drops we had to slice by hand. Problem with using those gum drop slices though was that they attracted the raccoons. We spent as much time battling raccoons as we spent running programs.”

I’ve actually already written a post a few years ago with 12 pieces of advice that are still mostly relevant for young professionals, and more experienced professionals too. This week, I want to focus on one particular point, and that is the balance of working within a flawed system while working to change it. What do I mean by this? I’ve been encountering more young professionals, and also a few experienced folks, becoming jaded and cynical about “the system” or “the game” or the “Nonprofit Industrial Complex” and this manifests in conscious and unconscious behaviors to disengage from participating in it. Here are some examples of that:

  • Not showing up on time or not sticking to a predictable work schedule, to protest the rigid, patriarchal concept of time
  • Not participating in various meetings and events because they’re considered useless or tools that reinforce the dominant system
  • Not applying for scholarships or grants, because it’s unfair that there’s an inequitable distribution of resources that caused scholarships to be needed in the first place
  • Not learning or improving on certain “mainstream” skills such as writing or financial management
  • Not sending thank-you emails or engage in other forms of courtesy because why should we be appreciative of people who are complicit in the perpetuation of an unjust system
  • Becoming defensive when given feedback on quality of work, especially from a person considered to be of a dominant identity

At a writing workshop I helped facilitate, a colleague mentioned that writing as a skill is too dominant culture and does not resonate with her and that we should consider other forms of communication, such as audio or visual media. Another colleague was fed up with the funding system in our sector and didn’t see the point of learning how to talk to foundations or build relationships with donors.

This is not to bash young professionals, since I’ve seen these sentiments across generations. We all have to protect ourselves from becoming jaded. The last couple of years have been especially rough on all of us, and the current challenges have really highlighted just how awful and inequitable the systems—grantmaking, public policy, organizational culture, etc.—we work within are. So I can totally understand the frustration.

But this is my advice, and plea, to all the professionals starting out in their nonprofit career, and anyone else who is frustrated by the flaws of our sector: You must play the game, and you must excel at it because your ability to understand and work effectively within all these flawed systems is a critical factor in your ability to change them.  

What does this look like? Many grants are incredibly inequitable and often torturous and nonsensical; you may still need to become a kick-ass grantwriter. The Western concept of time often de-prioritizes human interactions and community-building; you still need to develop the habit of being punctual. Your work can be tedious and seemingly meaningless; you still need to do it well. Feedback can be hard to hear, especially from people who may not have lived through the things you’ve endured; you still need to learn how to receive feedback from them, though you might not agree with any of it. Data, and the philosophies surrounding data, has often been weaponized against communities; you still need to learn how data works and how to use it. You may hate writing and think it is often too academic and exclusionary, but it is a critical skill, so you still need to learn to do it well. Our fundraising philosophy and practices often perpetuate the injustice we’re fighting; you still need to learn how to be an effective fundraiser. And so on.

However, do these things intentionally and strategically, with a lens of a testing and observing the strengths and weaknesses of the myriad components of the work. Learn the history and terminology, develop the arguments, hone your skills, and build the evidence you need to transform systems. And sometimes, it makes sense to go against the current, or to abstain from playing the game, or even to blow stuff up (figuratively).

I know this all may sound naïve, tiring, and possibly infuriating. I too am exhausted, and get really frustrated sometimes at having to play within a game that seems rigged to benefit some and screw others while purporting to be about social justice. I know many of you entered the sector with optimism and idealism, only to see and be disheartened and disillusioned by the inequities within it. And it may seem easier to try to find another system instead of trying to fix this one.

Do that too: Create another system; explore and synthesize. Take the ideas and practices from other sectors and professions, and work to create things that may not yet exist, or that we who have been in this sector for so long may have taken for granted or cannot see or unsee.

But to do that well, you need to have a firm grasp on this sector and all its strengths and flaws. And you must develop strategic partnerships with other leaders and build your influence, and that often only come from having proven yourself effective in navigating this existing reality. 

Our world needs you. Learn to play this imperfect game and be the best damn player ever; then use what you learn to change the game itself. Do not give up, even when it seems like you are only perpetuating an inequitable system by participating in it. For if you give up…then the raccoons have already won.

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