3 misunderstandings about nonprofits that prevent them from succeeding

It’s been six years since “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” was published and two years since Dan Pallotta gave his famous TED talk about the financial burdens facing nonprofit organizations. Despite these widespread, articulate, and compelling calls to arms – and a plethora of research, reports, guides, and tools – the sector continues to suffer from financial struggles that have broader impacts on its progress and success at tackling societal problems. In 2013, Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance started the campaign to end the Overhead Myth, but letters and signatures are meaningless unless we actually put words into action.

What is it that’s stopping us from taking action? Why do we continue to do things the same way when we know there’s a problem and there are solutions at hand?

It strikes me that what drives our behavior is a set of underlying assumptions and beliefs about nonprofits – paradigms that paralyze us from doing things differently. These unspoken paradigms perpetuate the funding and management practices that keep nonprofits from thriving financially and successfully responding to societal problems at scale:

  1. The Misnomer of Non-profit. We associate profit with personal gain and nonprofits with the public good, but nonprofits are businesses, and any successful business needs to earn a surplus. For nonprofits, this surplus isn’t doled out to investors but rather it’s reinvested in the growth and improvement of the organization. Without making a profit, nonprofits live under stressful conditions and cannot expand or innovate to have more impact.
  2. The Overhead Problem. We all know the story: not enough money goes to the nonprofit enterprise – the business side of things that provides for the programs and services we all love and desire, a.k.a. “overhead.” The problem is that the overhead-to-program ratio is seen as an indicator for efficiency, when in fact, it’s actually not, and varies with an organization’s business and business model. We should care less about the overhead ratio and more about important things like effectiveness, or whether the organization is actually solving the problem.
  3. The Restricted Nature of Giving. Unlike the way we invest in for-profit companies, with nonprofits we feel we get to specify how our funding should be used, because hey, it’s our money, right? Unfortunately, this restriction on spending limits an organization’s decision-making and reflects a lack of trust that the organization knows how to spend our money wisely. We should have more faith in the people who dedicate their lives to the causes we care about and the organizations we value so much. (And if we don’t have that much faith in them, should we really be giving them our money?)

There are many different efforts out there to improve nonprofits – how to write better fundraising appeals, how to use social media to attract more support, how to manage volunteers, etc. – but those efforts will only have limited success if the deck is stacked against nonprofit organizations as a whole. Until we get at the root of the problem and change the way we value and invest in nonprofit organizations, everything else is like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

For more on these paradigms – and how funders and organizations can break them by doing things differently – download a free copy of Invaluable today.



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