Hi everyone, a quick note before we get started. If you’re in Seattle and available the evening of October 26th, please join me at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) for a book reading I’m doing of my book, Unicorns on Fire, which is a collection of some of my favorite blog posts, but in print. It’ll be fun. We’ll be sharing scary nonprofit stories, taking photobooth pictures, and giving out NAF merch as door prizes. It’s free. Register here so we know how much hummus to buy for the hummus bar.
If you work in this sector, you’ve probably experienced your fair share of bizsplaining. This is a term my friend Allison Carney coined where someone from the corporate sector who often has little to no nonprofit experience, talks down to nonprofit professionals. It manifests in several ways, including, but not limited to:
- Criticizing nonprofits by comparing them with for-profits: “Nonprofits leaders are so disorganized, unlike all these amazing, highly competent leaders who run businesses.”
- Assuming their experience in for-profit makes them qualified to school nonprofits: “I retired from a 40-year career in banking. I’d love to mentor a nonprofit leader or two.”
- Believing nonprofit work is easier than for-profit work: “Being a corporate lawyer has been so stressful. Sometimes I daydream about quitting and starting my own nonprofit.”
- Using corporate terms and concepts as if we’ve never heard of them: “Have you heard of revenues projection?”
- Insisting that nonprofits be more like for-profits: “Nonprofits should be more like for-profits.”
- Believing volunteering or using nonprofits makes them expert: “I’ve been a board member of several nonprofits, so I know how to run one. That’s why I’m applying for this ED position.”
- Arguing about nonprofit issues as if the bizsplainer’s opinions about them are as equally valid as the opinions of someone in nonprofit: “I disagree. I think nonprofits should all be forced to pay taxes.”
- Ignoring glaring issues in for-profits: “Wow, nonprofits have a unique problem of people of color quitting.”
- Believing for-profits are the solutions for every problem: “Nonprofits should just all go out of business and let social enterprises take over solving social issues.”
- Being unable to detect irony, such as understanding the problems caused by for-profits: “Maybe if nonprofits acted more like for-profits, they’d be more successful at solving issues like poverty and homelessness.”
I’m sure there’s plenty of other categories. It’s weird. It’s rare when nonprofit folks have the same patronizing attitude toward for-profits. There are probably a few nonprofit people who have no experience in another field saying something like, “I’ve never run a restaurant before, but I have eaten at several, and I think you need to consolidate with other restaurants in your neighborhood into one mega-restaurant, to lower overhead costs” or “When I’m retired from my career in youth development, I’d love to open my own medical practice. It seems so rewarding!”
But that’s not common. Most of us don’t go butting into the intricacies of medicine, law, architecture, engineering, or underwater welding with the same breathtaking combination of arrogance and ignorance that many for-profit people come at us with. And none of this is to say that there are no good for-profit folks who enter the nonprofit sector and become awesome; there are, and their secret is that they’re humble enough to put aside their ego and learn from the folks who have been here in the sector for a while.
If you’re dealing with a bizsplainer, it can be exhausting, frustrating, and sometimes bewildering. Some bizsplainers mean well but just don’t realize how condescending and ridiculous they’re being. Think of them like adorable toddlers with LinkedIn accounts who are learning the ways of the world. If you have the time and patience, feel free to help educate. Remember, not everyone has had the same experience we do, and society does not do a very good job educating people on the intricacies of nonprofit dynamics. It does the opposite, which is to further misinformation, such as on overhead, etc.
So unless it’s obviously otherwise, assume at first that the bizsplainer is well-meaning, and calmly provide context, statistics, and counterarguments. One time, a bizsplainer said to me, “You nonprofits all should sell things to earn revenues. Like my church. It sells sausages each weekend.” I calmly explained how earned revenues can be great but is not realistic for most nonprofits. He took it well.
The real issues are with the bizsplainers who are trolls and who like riling people up. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years:
Remain calm: Trolls like to wind people up, and the more irritated you are, the more gleeful they get. They can sense when their prey is flustered, and they will attack. Don’t engage with them as if they were rational human beings who are open to change, because most of the time, they’re not.
Overwhelm them with nonprofit jargon: No matter what they say, respond back with random acronyms and jargon: “Have you considered that your KPI’s don’t make sense within most nonprofits’ theory of change, or the fact that most RFP’s require an LOI as well as several iterations of our strategic plan?”
Pretend they’re being extremely satirical and witty: “Greg, that was an amazing impression of the type of ignorance we nonprofits have to deal with! I was crying I was laughing so hard! You’re hilarious! So glad we have for-profit allies like you.”
Turn the table on them, with the same amount of ignorance: “I hear what you’re saying about overhead, but what about mortgage capital companies? Are they subjected to the same level of regulations by the SEC? I doubt it! I had an uncle who worked at one, and he told me the triple bottom line was all a lie designed to inflate stock values! Why don’t we talk about that!”
Use condescending terms of endearments in your response: “Oh Pookie, most nonprofit professionals do not live in mansions and drive Porsches. Where are you getting this?” Bizsplaining trolls hate being called Pookie.
Agree with them: Many bizsplainers don’t know what to do when you actually agree with them: “I’m with you bestie, most nonprofits shouldn’t exist! Corporations should pay their employees livable wages, and the government should be taking care of its people! Thanks for being a strong advocate for regulation and fair tax codes.”
Ask them for a donation: “Andrew, thank you so much for your perspective. Here’s our donation link. It’s donors like you that help keep our door open to serving so many people.” When they start scoffing, tell them you’ve done some research and found their email and have added them to the mailing list. Thank them for being a future donor.
Make them fall in love with you, then betray them: This is a last resort, but you can private message them, be extra charming (“so…if we were on a date, what would be your KPIs?”), have them fall for you over a matter of weeks or months, and then date their best friend and/or sibling and/or parents.
Of course, you could always just ignore or block these people, but what’s the fun in that.
Just remember, our sector does amazing work, considering the perpetually unpredictable, consistently insufficient resources and some of the most ridiculous restrictions and barriers. We don’t need to be talked down to by people from a sector that, while it does some good stuff, often contributes to the problems we’re trying to solve.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have a tech bro I need to charm. “Gosh, you’re so smart! Tell me more about this nonprofit you plan to start that uses NFTs to solve poverty! That’s so visionary! Maybe you and I and your parents can have dinner and talk about it?”
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