Reports of the nonprofit sector’s death are greatly exaggerated

[Image description: A chameleon, lying on a twig, looking rather annoyed. Image by Enrico Corradi on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, before we get started, this year marks the 10th anniversary of when I began writing about our sector. It has been an amazing ten years, and 483 posts, filled with hummus jokes, rants about restricted funding, and vigorous defense of the Oxford Comma. To celebrate this milestone, here are a few things to note:

  • Nonprofit AF the Book: I’m editing a compilation of the top 50 or so posts into a book, tentatively titled “The Nonprofit AF Omnibus: There and Back Again, A Collection of the Top 50 or So Posts, Finally Edited for Grammar and Typos, Volume 1.” Or NAFOTBGCT50OSPFEGTV1 for short. Be on the lookout for it this spring or summer.
  • Short videos and/or sock puppets? I’m exploring doing more content in other formats because writing is my comfort zone, but I want to push myself a bit. And besides, people have different styles of receiving information and learning, so it’ll be nice to have different ways to engage. It’ll be fun. I hope. Please keep jokes like “you have a face for podcasts” to yourself.
  • Phasing out ads: I’m removing most if not all ads from this website over the next few weeks. I’m grateful for the cool partners who have placed ads. But the spirit and purpose of this blog is to share unfiltered thoughts on our sector, and that is sometimes hard to do if the orgs or concepts I need to call out may be buying ads on this site (not that I’ve had to call anyone out or plan to in the near future).
  • Patreon: Without ad revenues, I rely even more on other ways to make a living. I am very appreciative of monthly Patreon contributors. Your support has been really helpful, especially during these past two years. If you find NAF useful, and want it to remain free and open to everyone, become a monthly patron if you aren’t one already and can afford it. You can also do one-time payments. Orgs and foundations, consider it a professional development investment in your team and in the field.

Thank you for reading Nonprofit AF, engaging with the questions posed here, and putting up with my shenanigans these past ten years.

On to this week’s topic. A few days ago I talked to a colleague who played me a clip of a podcast discussing whether nonprofits are becoming obsolete because for-profits are getting increasingly involved with charity-like work. With the rise of social entrepreneurism, B corps, etc., people are asking this question more and more. Some are concerned, and some barely hide the glee in their voice as they envision corporations solving societal issues and putting an end to nonprofits, us goody-two-shoes orgs with our twitchy-eyed staff decked in Ross-Dress-for-Less clothing, constantly having meetings and eating hummus.

This is not a new question. This article, for example, written in 2015 by a leader of a B corp, states: Nonprofits are losing their monopoly as the most effective agents of social change. Unless they evolve, corporations, B Corps, and social enterprises that are just as committed to solving social problems and perhaps better able to make a difference will eclipse them.”

These sentiments are annoying. Yes, let’s inadequately fund nonprofits and burden them with restrictions—“here’s some cans of beets and $83 that you can only spend on paperclips on Tuesdays, go end hunger”—then whine that they don’t work. These doubts about nonprofits by other sectors, combined with the open frustration felt by more and more younger professionals at our weaknesses, has been leading to some anxiety and perhaps existential crises. Who are we? Are we relevant? Will we be put out of business? Where do we go? What’s to become of us?

Let’s calm down so we can reframe this issue. Communities deserve what is most effective. If something is good for people most affected by injustice, we should embrace it, no matter which sector it’s from, and regardless of whether it puts nonprofits out of business. For instance, direct cash transfers—i.e., just giving poor people money and trusting they know what’s best to do with it—are awesome and have been shown by research to be super effective. We have a moral obligation to support strategies that work for our communities, even if it threatens the solvency of nonprofits and the livelihoods of professionals who are paid to work in that issue area.

However, the assertion that for-profits somehow could better solve society’s problems misses a major fundamental point: Corporations are the CAUSE of a significant number of society’s problems. Whenever I hear business people claiming that nonprofits are ineffective and that for-profits will do a better job, I imagine myself chuckling, then laughing, then flipping over a table and screaming “YOU PAY PEOPLE SHIT WAGES AND BENEFITS SO THEY RELY ON GOVERNMENT AND NONPROFIT SERVICES! YOU AVOID TAXES SO GOVERNMENT CAN’T FUNCTION ADEQUATELY! YOU THINK YOU CAN SOLVE THE ISSUES YOU CAUSE?! AND MAKE STILL MORE PROFIT WHILE DOING IT? THAT’S LIKE AN ARSONIST CLAIMING THEY ARE MOST EFFECTIVE IN TREATING THE PEOPLE THEY BURNED!” Then security would be called, and I would get dragged out of the building and thrown into a pile of garbage bags.

We have entrenched issues in society in significant part because corporations and the wealthy exploit labor, abuse public resources, refuse to pay their fair share of taxes, destroy the environment, and use their wealth to buy political power and weaken government. Wrap all this capitalism in a layer of white supremacy, colonization, and imperialism, and this is the situation we are in.  

Unfortunately, society normalizes living with all this, blaming individuals and organizations instead of doing the painful work of dismantling oppressive systems. Over time, this becomes widely accepted as immutable, and learned helplessness settles in. Nonprofits try to solve these issues as best as we can, but the issues will never be solved because, again, they are systemic and a systems response is needed. We then get looked down on.

I see this happening with the Biden administration and CDC’s response to the pandemic: Instead of the federal government taking decisive actions, states and local government and individuals are expected to tackle covid on their own, sacrificing disabled people and other marginalized people in the process. Nonprofits will step in to fill the gaps, as we’ve always done, while woefully underfunded and never completely effective. And eventually some article will come out about how nonprofits are not effective in addressing the pandemic, because people will have forgotten that it should never have been our job in the first place.

As long as corporations continue to screw over the world, government continues to be controlled by wealthy white men and white institutions, and people continue to refuse to address issues at the systems level, nonprofit and philanthropy will exist to address the inequity. Many of us don’t want to exist. Many of us would rather society take care of its people, corporations treat workers fairly, government were representative of communities and adequately resourced and doing its work.

Having a bunch of B corps or social enterprises is not going to fix things in the long run. I don’t see many B corps with a bottom line of curbing capitalism and white supremacy. We need to stop this futile quest for silver bullets, whether it’s social enterprise or B corps or impact investing or whatever. It’s delusional.

The only way we can solve entrenched issues is by changing tax laws so the rich pay their fair share, vastly reducing the influence of corporations on politics by reversing Citizens United and other policies, strengthening unions, increasing the minimum wage, advancing universal healthcare, etc. And to do that, we need to protect voting rights and elect more progressives of color—especially women of color—into office. As imperfect and as nonprofits are, we are still way more equipped to do all these things than for-profits; let’s “evolve” to focus more on vast systems change.

The next time you hear someone declare that the nonprofit sector is dying, that a for-profit backed by some venture capitalists will now solve homelessness and poverty with a fun app or some NFTs or something, do not become defensive. Rejoice! The onus has been on our shoulders for so long. We’ve been burning out, sacrificing our health and well-being to take care of problems that wouldn’t exist if corporations weren’t so profit-driven, or government were handling things. If for-profits or any other entities want to take over our thankless jobs of keeping inequity at bay, by all means, let’s give them a big hug, hand them the cans of beets and the $83 we got from a grant, and let them have at it.

Honestly, many of us would really love it if other sectors pick up some or all of our work and put us out of commission. We are talented people and can do other things. With no nonprofit-related stuff to write about, I could start a different blog: Don’t worry, there will still be hummus jokes.