21 “nonprofit math” problems that expose the absurdity of doing good

[Image description: Top view of a person sitting at a desk in front of an open laptop, their hands clasping the top of their head, seemingly in frustration. Around the laptop are various objects, including a cup of coffee, a camera, a note pad and pen, a small houseplant, and one of those things people click when they’re making a movie to say “take 87” or something, I don’t know what that’s called. Image by lukasbieri on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, if you’re free this Thursday evening and are in the Seattle area, please drop by MOHAI for a book reading I’ll be doing. It’s free with registration, and there will be hummus and door prizes (or possibly hummus AS door prizes, we’re still deciding). REGISTER HERE. This is the only book reading I’m doing in the foreseeable future, because “Castlevania: Nocturne” on Netflix is not going to rewatch itself.

Last week, I created a short video on “Nonprofit Math,” following a trend on social media all the kids have been raging about, regarding different types of math: boy math, girl math, corporate math, etc. The 50-second clip I made went kind of viral, watched nearly a million times. Sure, I look super sexy there, with only one eye involuntarily twitching from stress, and the grantwriting-induced wrinkles smoothed out by hotel room lighting. But I think the topic hit a nerve with folks in the sector because we’re all exhausted by the various shenanigans we’ve been forced to endure.

For so long we nonprofit professionals have been twisting our brains into knots trying to comply with the various expectations and requirements imposed on us in the sector and by society. When it’s all laid out bare, we realize none of it should be normal, that it’s all ridiculous! Here are some ways “nonprofit math” manifests, including the items in the video:

  1. Nonprofit math is when you spend $80,000 to net $50,000 at your annual fundraising gala
  2. Nonprofit math is spending $20,000 and months to hire someone who quit because they were underpaid by $10,000
  3. Nonprofit math is when a funder gives a nonprofit HALF the grant amount requested but expects full activities and outcomes.
  4. Nonprofit math is when the City provides a nonprofit a grant that reimburses them 73 cents for every dollar spent delivering services, so the nonprofit is basically subsidizing the government while doing work government should be doing.
  5. Nonprofit math is a nonprofit paying its staff so low they qualify for the services the nonprofit provides
  6. Nonprofit math is when funders expect nonprofits to keep overhead rates below 15%, when most foundations, because they don’t run programs, are 100% overhead.  
  7. Nonprofit math is when nonprofits are expected to spend $2,000’s worth of staff time in grantwriting and reporting for a $1,000 grant
  8. Nonprofit math is when less than 10% of philanthropic dollars across the sector go to communities-of-color-led organizations when the majority of people most affected by systemic injustice are people of color
  9. Nonprofit math is when the board, a group of individuals who see 1% of work that’s happening, gets vast power over the staff, who have a much better understanding of what’s happening on the ground
  10. Nonprofit math is when an awesome staff asks for a raise of $5,000 and gets denied, so they quit, but no one would work at the current salary, so the organization has to raise the salary $10,000 and now has a less experienced staff.
  11. Nonprofit math is when men on average still earn more than women, and hold more leadership positions at the largest nonprofits and institutions, despite the sector being majority-women.
  12. Nonprofit math is when a question on a grant proposal is 2,000 characters long, but you only are given 500 characters to answer it.
  13. Nonprofit math is a funder or donor refusing to pay for overhead, yet still requires reporting on how the money was spent. Which is accounting. Which is overhead!
  14. Nonprofit math is when a funder takes longer to make grant decisions than it takes to conceive and give birth to a baby
  15. Nonprofit and corporate math is thinking nonprofits should act more like for-profits, when for-profits fail at a rate of 50% within 5 years, 70% within 10 years.
  16. Nonprofit math is foundations not increasing their grant amounts each year, despite severe inflation
  17. Nonprofit math is society investing $125M to develop a wifi-connected juicer while nonprofits are being asked to save democracy or end poverty through frankensteining together a series of $5,000 restricted grants that can only be spent on paper clips on Tuesdays
  18. Nonprofit math is when funders demand nonprofits be sustainable but then not funding them because they have money in reserve.
  19. Nonprofit math is having thousands of nonprofits that run vital programs spend time and energy conforming to the arbitrary whims of funders, most of whom run no direct service programs. 
  20. Nonprofit math is expecting nonprofit leaders to retire using a combination of Beanie Babies, working past their retirement age, and dying early.
  21. Nonprofit math is wealthy people and corporations are not paying their fair share taxes and then having the nerve to criticize nonprofits for being imperfect as we try to provide many services that should be provided by a functional government.

Yup, that’s a lot of yikes. Add in the comments other things you can think of. As the kids say these days, “the math is not mathing.” Let’s work to do better.

(The kids also say I don’t have any rizz and they finna drag my drip, but I’ll address that later when I understand what they’re saying.)

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