Nonprofit professionals, we need to be louder and more vocal, and possibly more obnoxious

[Image description: Two seagulls, standing on a skinny stump, their heads raised to the sky, their beaks open, as if they’re screaming about something. Image by Per-Arne on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, for the past two weeks I’ve been dealing with ongoing violent coughs, wheezing, and occasional migraines. Chest x-rays finally concluded I have pneumonia. (My ten-year-old: “So can you transform into different animals now?” “No, son, that’s Nimona.”). I am now on a delightful cocktail of antibiotics, inhalers, and various other medications. All that to say, I am not exactly the most coherent right now and might start hallucinating again at any moment, so thank you for your understanding. Yes, Ms. Scott, I would love for you to fund Nonprofit The Musical!

This summer, I went back to Vietnam for three weeks. There, among amazing food and beautiful scenery, as usual I strove to answer questions from various relatives on what it is I do. It doesn’t help that I left Vietnam when I was eight, so my Vietnamese vocabulary is limited, which is not helpful when trying to explain complicated things like equity, grantwriting, and hummus, the trademarks of our profession.

But it turns out, none of my family over here, who all speak English, understands it either. I have given up trying to explain to them what I do and instead have decided to cultivate a mysterious brooding persona, akin to a vigilante superhero with a troubled past (“They call me…The Caped Capacity Builder…”)

A reason many of our families have little understanding of what we do could be that our sector isn’t very visible in society. Newspapers will have a business section, but not a nonprofit/philanthropy section. Local TV news programs will have a sports segment, but no dedicated space to highlight the important work our sector does daily.

It’s kind of annoying. There are shows are chocolate sculpting and glass blowing, about firefighters and ice truckers, and like a billion shows about cops. I am now watching “Fisk” on Netflix, a hilarious show about a no-nonsense lawyer at a wills and probate firm in Australia. But there’s barely anything about our work. There are a few things, like “Loot,” which I analyzed here. And technically, universities and hospitals are nonprofits, and there’s lots of shows about them.

The point, however, is not that we need more shows about nonprofit and philanthropy, which we do. The lack of shows and dedicated news segments about our work is a symptom of how quiet and modest we are as a sector. Other sectors, especially for-profits, tend to be very vocal, to the point of insisting they know how to do our own work better than we do. Our sector, on the other hand, is the opposite—mostly quiet and unassuming. Kind of like Dunning-Kruger, but for entire fields.

I remember attending an amazing conference a few years ago where people came from all sorts of fields: tech, medicine, nonprofits, etc. All were there to figure out how to solve global problems like poverty and infant mortality. The loudest, most self-assured people were the tech bros. They had the least knowledge about the issues, and their solutions were often not based in reality (“we need an app to help homeless people use GPS to find shelters”), and yet they were so confident and eager to share their ideas. It was inspiring in a way.  

I think there are reasons why we’re generally not as loud as other fields. The work of advancing equity and justice attracts those who tend to be less focused on themselves and their own well-being (and some of whom may have a martyr complex). Meanwhile, society has a philosophy where those with wealth get more attention, propped up by sayings like “beggars can’t be choosers,” and our work often does feel like begging the wealthy for funding. Then, we ourselves reinforce it with fundraising philosophies like the expectation of constant gratitude toward donors. And, it’s a women-majority profession, like teaching and nursing, and these professions, because of patriarchal BS, tend to be less loud and arrogant than men-majority ones.

As much as I like the dignified pride of doing good and not focusing so much on hyping ourselves up, the lack of being seen in society does affect our work. The public remains ignorant about what we do and comes up with ridiculous narratives, such as about overhead and rampant corruption. Donors have no understanding of what goes on at nonprofits and continue making ridiculous demands. Board members have superficial knowledge about the profession and yet are assigned power to make vital decisions. We don’t get the resources we need to be at our most effective, as well as to take care of ourselves like save for retirement. And tech dude-bros continue absorbing funding that could go toward viable solutions.

There are plenty of exceptions to all this, of course. There’s lots of loud, self-serving people in our sector, and lots of nice quiet people in other professions. I’m talking in general.

Point is, nonprofit colleagues, it’s time we stop being so modest and humble all the time. The work we do is vital. We tackle systemic inequity, filling in gaps left behind by government. Society would collapse without us. I don’t want anyone to say or think we’re “begging” ever. And enough with this constant one-way gratitude toward people with money. We should expect the same amount of gratitude back from society!

It’ll be good if nonprofit professionals were just a bit louder and in people’s faces more often. Speak up more. Write more op-eds. Demand to meet with elected officials. Call radio stations. Attend business or government conferences and make a ruckus. And advocate for more shows about our amazing, critical work! Maybe a little bit less modesty and a bit more arrogance would be good for our work.

Now, if you will excuse me, my medicines are kicking in. Madam Vice President, did you call me? Of course I’ll take care of it! Let me put on my Caped Capacity Builder mask! I made it myself with duct tape and binder clips!

Please donate to support the people and communities affected by the wildfires in Maui. Here’s a great list of organizations to donate to, as well as other ways to help.