The general public is completely clueless about nonprofit and philanthropy, and that’s a problem

[Image description: Two meerkat, standing upright outside in the sun. They are facing the camera but seem to be looking at something beyond the camera. Image by peterstuartmill on Pixabay and has nothing to do with this post.]

Hi everyone. Quick announcement: Edgar Villanueva—the author of Decolonizing Wealth—and I are having an Instagram Live chat today, 6/22, at 4pm EST where we talk spontaneously about whatever is on our minds. Follow @nonprofitaf and @villanuevaedgar. See you soon; ignore my stress-related acne.

A few months ago, I had just left my position as an executive director and was starting to work on a cool project: A sketch comedy show about nonprofit work! It would be so sweet; each episode would feature several short and hilarious skits that bring to life the complexity of our work, sometimes involving hummus (which is present in 80% of nonprofit meetings and events). No one outside the sector really understands what we do, and I thought it would be fun to let people get a glimpse. I was starting to write scripts when the pandemic hit and everything had to be put on hold and who the hell knows if I’ll ever get to it at this point.

But we need to do something, because the public’s complete lack of awareness about how nonprofits operate has some serious consequences. Last week, we saw the public pile on the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a small nonprofit that saw an influx of $35M over the past three weeks and had been able to spend $200,000 so far. The comments on Twitter are scathing, sometimes ridiculous, with people expecting MFF to have a perfect plan within two weeks on what to do with 300 times the amount they normally get in one year. Here’s an article that summarizes the situation. MFF, if you’re reading this, thank you for doing your important work, and know there are people who have your back.

The uncalled-for backlash against MFF, however, is a case study of what happens to individual organizations when our entire sector sucks at communicating with the general public. We’ve been really nice people, so we keep putting up with crap, like near the holidays when memes float around about which nonprofits have the highest “overhead” rate. I’m getting tired of all the BS we tolerate, because they’re not just annoying, they’re damaging. We need to be deliberate about shaping the narrative about what we do. This includes:

1.Make general operating donations the default: Our decades of transactionalizing donations—“$50 will pay for meals for 10 kids for a week,” “$100 will provide five seniors with skateboards,” etc.—has conditioned people to think of nonprofit work the way they think of ordering things from a catalog. So they get pissed off when what they “ordered” does not arrive perfectly packaged for their consumption. Let’s end our weird habit of actually inviting donors to restrict their donations. Every donation we solicit needs to be general operating, so nonprofits have the flexibility to use it as needed and it is ingrained in donors as the norm. Let’s stop training donors to restrict their funds, and then whine about how people don’t understand why unrestricted funds are important.

2.Show what it takes to do the work well: Because no one wants to pay for things like office rent, utilities, websites, accounting, insurance, staffing, etc., we don’t talk about these things. But a reason they don’t want to pay for those things because we don’t talk about them and explain why they’re needed. And because we don’t talk about them, people have no clue what’s needed to do this work. They still think things just magically happen, like programs just run themselves and financial reports just generate themselves. In the case of MFF, people demand transparency on where all the funds have gone or are going, without stopping to think about who will be doing all that work, both the programmatic work and the work of accounting where money is being spent and communicating it out.

3.Get people to invest in long-term strategies: Not only do people expect things to arrive perfectly packaged for them to be able to understand and feel good about, but they want it immediately. And this is why we always shape our messaging toward short-term outcomes. It then becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. We have to move away from these short-term transactions into long-term partnerships. This includes a much more challenging way to communicate with donors. They need to understand that to do this work well, it will take lots of time. Yes, sometimes we do take way too much time, but there is a balance we need to strike. In the quest for donations, we constantly create this false narrative for donors that this work can be achieved within months or even days.

4.Have people see an ecosystem, not a bunch of stand-alone organizations: Folks on Twitter asks why MFF doesn’t just give money to other bail funds in other cities. Well, that’s because that’s not how our sector currently works, and not how we’ve conditioned people to think. Let’s change that and get people to understand that all our missions are interrelated. MFF did encourage donors to give to other nonprofits, which was great, but how about all of our donation pages have something along the lines of “Your donations will be put to good use to further our mission. As appropriate, this includes subgranting to other nonprofits aligned with the work we are doing.” Yes, we need to worry about power dynamics and other challenges that come with grantmaking among nonprofits, but the more of an ecosystems-minded approach we take to this work, the more effective we will be.

5.Push back on people’s ignorance instead of just navigating around it: One time a colleague told me how every year her local newspaper publishes and shames the 10 charities with the highest “overhead” rate. “I’m just terrified that we’ll get on that list at some point,” she said, “so we do everything we can to lower our ratio.” We are often too nice, so we don’t push back. Our collective lack of pushing back has allowed ignorance about our sector to go unchecked, which allows some ridiculous narratives to be built, and it affects us all. It’s time to do some counter-narrative work. If something is ridiculous, call it out. In the example above, let’s write an op-ed for the local newspaper explaining why “overhead” is BS and why shaming nonprofits for it is harmful to the work. We don’t need to keep quietly taking crap.

6.Shift people’s focus to the real issues: People are pissed off at one small nonprofit spending $200,000 out of $35,000,000 that they got in two weeks? Boy, will they just LOVE IT when they hear all about how foundations have been hoarding hundreds of BILLIONS for decades and decades, usually spending out a measly 5% or 6% of their endowments every year. Or how Donor-Advised Funds, again in the hundreds of billions total, have no legal mandate to spend out anything at all, despite donors already having taken tax breaks. The problem is, they don’t understand all that, because we don’t talk about it with the general public, and also because many of us within our sector barely understand these things. When the 5% payout rule is brought to the public’s attention, most people are enraged about it. Populist anger at the hoarding among rich people and institutions is definitely rising. Let’s channel it strategically. Like this petition asking Congress to enact legislation requiring foundations and DAFs to give out 10% of their assets each year for the next three years (Don’t worry, the economy will recover, and they’ll make it back).

For too long our sector has stood like a mysterious entity that people think they understand, but in reality they have no clue about. Unfortunately this is a huge portion of our donors and board members. While we solve the many, many internal problems that plague our work, we also need to keep an eye out on the public’s perception of and narratives about our sector. This does mean rethinking many of our communication strategies and messages. Talk to your team about how your messaging may affect the entire sector and what you can do better.

Meanwhile, I’ll do my part by writing scripts for the nonprofit sketch comedy show, to be produced whenever the pandemic ends. Or maybe I’ll do one-man skits, starting with a piece called “ASMR for Nonprofits.” (“[rustling sound]…that’s the sound of a donation check being taken out of the envelope…[Click] I just opened a container of hummus…)

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