Matthew Hugg

Article Summary:

Nonprofit corporations may be different than you perceive them. Six myths and misunderstandings about nonprofit organizations.

Nonprofit Corporations: Six Myths Busted

"I'm tired of getting up each day so that Sally Sue and Bobby Ray get another widget in their closet! I want to do something meaningful with my life before it's too late. You know, I've always loved bumblebees. I need to work at a nonprofit so I can save the bumblebees!"

And so starts another career in the nonprofit world... maybe.

Saving bumblebees, fighting cancer, educating children, or any number of other missions can be the best, most meaningful work in your life. But before you eagerly leap into the world of nonprofit work, you need to look at some of the myths that you may currently believe or encounter on your journey.

1. All nonprofits are poor.
Boy, is this a big one.

When most people think about nonprofits, they think of their local theater company, or maybe their child's scout troop selling popcorn and holding bake sales, scrimping for every dollar to feed their mission's budget. And that's the key. Many nonprofits - whether big or small, high or low income - act poor because they know that every dollar they save can go into their mission - whether it's saving another life, another tree, another you-name-it.

So what does this mean to you? Will you have to live like a monk? No. Increasingly, nonprofit managers see that to get good, happy, productive talent, they need to pay a living wage. Added to this, many believe that it is their moral imperative to do so - an attitude that you might not have encountered at your last for-profit job!

Does this mean that you might make as much as you did in your for-profit work? Maybe, maybe not. Whether you live like a monk on the pay is up to you, but hair shirts are not typically issued at nonprofits' HR offices!

2. Nonprofits are small - so there can't be many opportunities.
Yes, there is clearly an "80/20" rule at work among nonprofits: 80% of the nonprofits do tend to be small.

Because there are so many nonprofits (and record numbers of new ones being registered each year), the vast majority are small all-volunteer groups. But the vast majority of registered for-profit businesses are "micro-businesses" that are rarely heard or seen, too.

Meanwhile, many nonprofits are huge - hospitals, universities, retirement communities, national health organizations, and many more. These leviathans serve giant issues and have an insatiable need for talented staff, in a variety of specialties - from accounting to sales to treatment to just about anything you might find in a for-profit setting.

3. Everyone working at a nonprofit is a flakey bleeding heart.
This can be easy to assume, especially for our boomer friends who remember long-haired flower-child "Bambi" going off to save the whales.

Again, it's a myth. All those boomers grew up, and Bambi (now Barbara) left the whales to run a cosmetic company. As in the business world (hey, what group could be more "flakey" than Ben and Jerry's), the "flakey factor" varies widely.

For instance, I was a bit taken aback when I once interviewed at a cutting-edge disabled-care organization. All the field staff referred to the central headquarters as the "corporate office." When I got there, I found that they were right. The place had a corporate culture that could rival IBM's. No flakes there, believe me.

4. All nonprofits are badly run, so they need my help.
"I can't believe what they're spending they're money on!" Nonprofits are not businesses. Because they have many of the same trappings - offices with desks, telephones ringing, and computers with databases - doesn't mean that they do, or should, run the same. Again, the difference rests in the mission. What may seem inefficient may make perfect sense in light of the mission of the organization.

For example, what business do you know that rates their paying customers on a five-point scale, scolds them when they behave incorrectly, and sometimes dismisses them for low scores? Are they nuts? No, they're a college!

This dynamic results in very different processes than at a typical business. This isn't to say that nonprofits can't learn from business, but be open to the "why" behind the process.

5. Nonprofits are financially wasteful.
"In our business, we needed to keep costs to a minimum. I don't believe how much that nonprofit is paying that executive director."

In the nonprofit world they can't believe how much you're paying the average officer of your typical company!

First of all, don't believe everything you read in the papers. Because nonprofit information is so easily available (anyone can go to and look up a nonprofit's tax records), they can be a quick target for reporters and others who have an axe to grind - something much more difficult to do for a typical private company. Second, and maybe more important, is that the view of a nonprofit's efficiency rests in its mission: to serve someone or something, not to increase shareholder value. Therefore, what might look, to the outsider, like inefficient use of resources, such as putting up 20 foot high deer fencing around a 100 acre plot of land, could be the best expression of the mission of the organization to save the native plant life in that preserve.

6. Nonprofit work is "lite."
"I'm from the business world, where we have deadlines and real issues to deal with, we don't 'play' like they do in the nonprofit."

No, you're wrong. You've never worked hard until you've worked at a nonprofit! Long hours, bad hotels, and tight deadlines can all be present in a nonprofit - as much if not more than private business.

So why does it seem like "play" to so many outsiders? The mission. The nonprofit worker is much more likely to be smiling at the day's end because he or she knows that the mission - from providing mental health care to seeing that land is preserved - is serving more than getting another gewgaw in Bob's workshop.

So, does working for a rich, big, efficient organization where you do familiar work for long hours under tight deadlines sound familiar? It could. Does working for a rich, big, efficient organization where you do familiar work for long hours under tight deadlines AND you save people, preserve land, educate children, heal horses, and yes, even save bumblebees, sound better? It may - and there's no hair shirts required!

Matt Hugg, president of FundraisingTransitions, uses his 20 years of charitable gift fundraising experience to help non-profit fundraisers, and those who aspire to be non-profit fundraisers, find the jobs they want at the organizations they love. For more information, visit Fundraising

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