“I won’t donate to any organization unless I know all the money goes directly into the programs they run.” It was a simple, innocent comment made by my mom during a conversation about the job I had just taken at a nonprofit. But it’s a comment I won’t soon forget because of how much it bothered me and how little I could articulate why.
See, I had just left a comfortable job at a commercial bank in Charlotte to work as a program director at the YMCA in Raleigh. This is a fancy way to say I took a pay cut to find more purpose and meaning in my career. And it was during this career pivot where I began to see firsthand the effects public perceptions of nonprofits have on how they operate.
We all can agree that nonprofits exist to fill a void in society left by the private sector and unfulfilled by public entities. They serve those that would otherwise be left without basic human rights and opportunity, among other things. But at some point in time, this came to mean they can’t operate like a “business.” Because of the people they serve, the mission they support, the impact they have on communities, society has bestowed upon them an expectation to act as anti-“business” as possible.
This is the point my mom was trying to make without really knowing it. She didn’t want her money going to non-program related expenses because it just didn’t feel right. And her intentions were admirable—she wanted to make the most impactful investment she could make. But, collectively, our intentions as a society have become misguided largely due to our mistrust of all things “business.” We believe profit-seeking entities care solely about maximizing shareholder value at all costs to society. So if you’re intending to “do good” in the world you can’t look anything like those things we don’t like. No overhead. No marketing. No salaries commensurate with skills and talent. No earned income. It’s as if some donors simply want an organization to be the delivery service between their money and those in need, which discounts the tremendous talents many of these organizations offer to society.
With 2.5 years in the nonprofit world under my belt, I have witnessed firsthand these tremendous talents. At the Y, I worked with some of the brightest program designers and managers in the business. Passionate people able to turn an idea into a force for good in a community. But I also saw the reality we’ve come to accept—no matter how strong the program or how high its ceiling of impact, non-income generating programs are at the mercy of fundraising and the tacit expectations that come with it on how, and how not, to spend the money. Some programs need strong marketing departments to ensure those most in need are aware of the services. Some need to pay market wages to talented staff that are having immeasurable impact on a community. And some use the money to support an earned income operation that helps fuel growth.
So, while there will always be a big difference between a nonprofit and a traditional for-profit business in terms of the stakeholders they serve and their motivations for operating, we need to get comfortable with more overlap between the two than currently accepted.
My response to my mom, if I had to do it all over again, would be to never donate to an organization you don’t trust. And if you trust an organization, hold it accountable for the end product…not just the process by which they achieve it.
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