The nonprofit sector is not more dysfunctional than any other sector, OK?

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Hi everyone, if you follow my ramblings for the past few years, you know that I point out various flaws in our sector. We have a lot of them, from our ridiculous traditional board structure, to the various time-wasting shenanigans of foundations, to the way we’ve been conditioned to appeal to the ego of rich mostly white donors, to how poorly paid many people are, to our propensity to intellectualize and not take action, to our crappy hiring practices, and to our office equipment that is held together with duct tape and bungee cords. And there’s plenty of other things we need to point out and improve on.

However, although it is not always apparent, I really genuinely love our sector. And I criticize it because I see our potential and I am optimistic that we can change and improve. It’s a lot like visiting your relatives and they just point out your appearance and all the stuff you’re doing wrong, but you know that it’s because they believe in you. When mine are like “You’re getting old, why don’t you find a real job or open a business like your cousins, and also you should try putting this eucalyptus oil on your face for your horrible acne,” I know they say all that stuff because they care.

Which is why it’s annoying when I or others point out the weaknesses in our sector, and the responses from colleagues (both from nonprofit as well as from other sectors) go along the lines of “See, nonprofits are toxic as hell” or “there’s something about nonprofit management that’s just so dysfunctional” or “that’s why I left the sector to go into for-profits.” It’s expected when it’s people who don’t have any experience working in nonprofit looking down on and bizsplaining to us. But it hurts a bit when it’s us saying these things about ourselves.  

The nonprofit sector, with everything we need to fix about it, is not any more dysfunctional than other sectors. Every sector sucks in both common as well as unique ways:

Corporations: The vast majority of businesses fail with a few years, and 46% of those failures are due to incompetence. Many that succeed do it through exploiting workers, avoiding taxes, and destroying the environment. The reason so many nonprofits exist is because of how much of the world has been screwed up by so many corporations. And a major reason so many of our philosophies and practices are so dysfunctional is because we adapt stuff from the corporate world. Right now there are endless stories of people quitting terrible bosses and companies because they’re treated like crap.

Government: Designed to be run by white men, and this hasn’t changed much. Many colleagues who leave nonprofit to go work for the city or county talk about the great pay and benefits. But they lament the inefficiency and endless bureaucracy: “Please fill out these 18 forms so you can get a box of staples for your cubicle.” Plus, they have to respond to the changing tides of politics and the capricious whims of various elected officials, many of whom are incompetent or vindictive or both.    

Academia: I follow some academics on Twitter and the stories they tell are all chilling. Ph. D students being overworked and having severe mental health challenges. The rampant racism and sexism. Narcissistic advisors power tripping. A Squid Game around research and publications. Adjunct faculty being paid so poorly they are literally unable to afford food.

Media: Here’s a long list of things that need improving in the media. Tons of racism and sexism there too. It’s very white- and men-dominated, just like every other sector. Journalists are underpaid and overworked. And now many media companies are focused on getting clicks and making profit, which has led to sensationalism, both-siding, and misinformation, with terrible consequences.   

Social enterprise/B-Corp: These seem appealing to many folks who are disgruntled with nonprofit, because social enterprises seem to combine the best elements of nonprofits (making the world better) and for-profits (making money). But many of these entities create negative consequences, like undermining local economies in developing countries, perpetuating a consumeristic culture, furthering white savior tendencies, and adding to pollution. 83% of them fail within 3 years.

Self-employment: If you read the above and you’re like “Yeesh, everything is awful, I’m just going to work for myself,” well as fun as that is, there is plenty of stress, and your boss is likely still an asshole who works you to the bones.

Anyway, I’m not bringing all this up to disparage other sectors. It’s to remind everyone that there is no perfect sector. On the whole, nonprofits are not any more dysfunctional than anything else. There are some great nonprofits, and some that suck. Just like there are great companies, government agencies, academic institutions, social enterprises, etc., and some that are terrible. If you’re fed up with nonprofit or philanthropy, then by all means, leave. But if you think there’s a sector that’s not problematic in some way, you will be disappointed.

Those of us who are staying here, we need to stop thinking the grass is greener outside nonprofit. The more we have this attitude, the more people crap on nonprofits, and we already have enough challenges to deal with. We can, and should, criticize ourselves and our many flaws and work constantly to improve, and we can do that without comparing the nonprofit sector unfavorably with, and romanticizing, other sectors.

Maybe I should do more to highlight what’s good in our sector though, because there is plenty that’s amazing. I’ll think about it. But first, let me wash this eucalyptus oil off my face. It stings like a grant rejection.

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