The nonprofit inferiority complex is not sexy


Last week, I wrote an open letter to people from the business world telling them to stop thinking they are better than us nonprofit folks. That resonated with a lot of people from our sector: “Yeah, business people, just because you have decent dental insurance and can go to Chipotle as often as you like does not mean you’re better than us!”

But today, we need to address an equally serious problem with our sector, and that is our own sense of inferiority, which, unlike the overt superiority of many of our friends from the corporate sector, is usually unconscious. Still, it is pervasive across the sector, and combined with the martyr complex, it is debilitating. These things lead to burn out and prevent people from wanting to enter our field.

A huge problem lies with our society. We have a culture that does not understand or appreciate nonprofits. It has led to ridiculous things like the focus on overhead, and people getting their underoos in a bunch when nonprofit staff make a decent salary. We are expected to be like monks and take vows of poverty when we enter the profession. And like certain monks we are expected to wander the streets, begging for alms so we can do our work. 

Meanwhile, our society equates money with value. Let’s face it, our community defines a significant portion of our life’s success by how awesome our houses and cars and vacations are. We know this is crap, but it’s also reality. Trapped in this system, bombarded with materialism, constantly having to ask for money from much wealthier people who have awesome houses and cars, and left unprotected by the same sweet personal disposition that drew us to this profession in the first place, we start to unconsciously compare ourselves with others and internalize society’s messages. We start to think that our place is to be underdogs. We start to believe, unconsciously, that we’re not as smart or as talented or as good-looking as people who have more money.

Last week we discussed for-profit people who say nonprofits should run like businesses. But I encounter nonprofit people who say that as well. It’s alarming. Another thing that has been annoying me is when foundations and major NPOs hire people from other sectors into high-level leadership position: “Bob has had 26 years leading an underwater welding company. He now brings his experience to end homelessness.” In a way, it’s kind of nice that people in other fields would want to do our work. There’s plenty of work to do, and many of them end up doing a good job. But it makes me wonder: Did we not find a good candidate among the dozens of nonprofit leaders who must have applied? And why are people in our field not questioning this? Imagine the outcry from the business community if the reverse happened: “Microsoft is proud to announce our next CEO, Anna, who comes to us with over 25 years of experience leading a successful youth development nonprofit.” (That would actually be pretty awesome).

I think we have adopted an inferiority complex. It is built into our unconscious, which means it is hard to pinpoint and shake. But we need to identify it and deal with it and get over it so we can focus on the work. Our work is essential, and it is complex enough without us all second-guessing our own worth and abilities. Here is some stuff we need to do:

  • Work toward competitive salaries for ourselves and our staff (See “All right, we need to talk about nonprofit salaries”). If society places great value on money, then low salaries send a signal that we don’t think our profession is as valuable. I agree we shouldn’t tie our self-worth to our salaries, but I think the psychological and even existential effect of low pay on our sector’s self-esteem has been more damaging than we know.
  • Break out of the scrappiness cycle (See “Nonprofits, we must break out of the scrappiness cycle.”) Being severely frugal means we’re not investing enough in our nonprofits’ long-term growth and impact. (Psst: get a better chair if yours sucks; you deserve it)
  • Give feedback to funders. This may be difficult to do because of power dynamics. But it may also be because deep down we don’t feel like we merit the right to share our own opinions.
  • Give feedback to policy makers. Many of them think we’re wusses because we don’t speak up enough and we often don’t sound all that assertive when we do speak about our work. We need to channel the feistiness that comes with the realization that our work is important and urgent. Because it is.
  • Be a little more boastful when talking to people outside the sector. We say humble stuff like, “I work for a small nonprofit.” How about, “I work for a nonprofit that helps hundreds of kids each year become successful in school, what-what?” (The “what-what” part is optional)
  • When relevant, stop worshipping the corporate sector by hiring people with business backgrounds over people with nonprofit backgrounds to do social justice work.
  • Take time to recognize and celebrate the kick-ass stuff we do to make the world better every day. The work is so pressing that we forget to pat ourselves on the back once a while. 
  • Stop referring to ourselves as “professional beggers” and disparaging our field in other ways. We have to have a good sense of humor about our work, but we also need to stop doing the things that reinforce stereotypes of our sector. We ourselves have started to believe these steretypes, which makes them harder to change.

We cannot expect society to change if we continually reinforce its ridiculous perceptions. Lately I’ve noticed that our sector’s self-image has started to resemble our delicious and ubiquitous snack of choice. Hummus. It’s cheap. It’s soft. It’s delicious. And a little bit sour. We should be more like olive tapenade: strong, firm, appropriately salty.

As much as we should not compare ourselves with the business world, there are things we can still learn. The for-profit sector has a healthy ego—oftentimes too healthy. Having a healthy ego is the one area where we may want to imitate the business sector.


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