Dear Businesses, Stop Thinking You Are Better than Nonprofits

My friends from the business community. I love you guys. Without you, the world wouldn’t have smart phones. And 70% dark chocolate. And airplanes. And a bunch of medicines and technology that save lives. And clothing. And running water inside our houses. And these giant flat-panel TVs that display all my favorite shows from Netflix. And kitchen gadgets like the Veggetti; it slices zucchinis and carrots into long strands and is really fun to use, despite the slightly dirty sounding name. Ooh, and restaurants serving organic kale salads with little toasted pumpkin seeds. Businesses are awesome, and I am genuinely grateful what you all do for the world. We nonprofits love you all. So I want to make sure you know this letter is from a place of appreciation and fraternity.

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But seriously, many of you need to check your superiority complex. It’s annoying as hell.

Two examples: First, one of my Executive Director friends told me over coffee that a colleague of hers told her that she “got tired of how difficult the corporate world is, so I joined the nonprofit sector.” Both of us nearly choked on our tea, we were laughing so hard. Second, I was guest-speaking on a radio show about the challenges of nonprofit funding, and a gentleman from the for-profit world called in and wisely advised us nonprofit types to “Be more entrepreneurial.” He said we should have more earned-income strategies. “Like my church,” he said, “it sells sausages every weekend.”

Do you realize that every time you come to us and say, “Nonprofits need to run more like businesses,” most of us are internally repressing the urge to fly across the table and throttle you?

Of course we should learn lessons from you. The same way we learn lessons poetically from any other sector, or from history, or from the innocence of children, or from the Veggetti (Note to self: Write blog post about lessons I’ve learned from making veggie noodles). But…dude. I don’t know where this sense that you are better and more knowledgeable comes from. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re constantly asking you for money or to sit on our board so we can do our work. Or maybe it’s because our services for the homeless and low-income kids and families are not as in-your-face in society as smart-phones and Game of Thrones. Or maybe it’s because we ourselves make way less as professionals (See “All right, you guys, we need to talk about nonprofit salaries“). Or maybe, related to that, it’s because you have nicer houses and you can afford organic blueberries and you sit on ergonomic chairs at work.

None of these factors, however, means you are smarter and more talented and better looking than us lowly nonprofit slum dwellers, with our lack of 401k and our beat-up furniture that we secured from other nonprofits when they moved. Consider a few things:

Businesses have a huge failure rate. Pan Am, Pets.com, Atkins Nutritionals, Polaroid, Blockbuster, Sharper Image. Where are they now? According to this chart ,about half of start-up businesses fail after four years. The statistics are not looking all that good for businesses. What exactly are we supposed to be emulating if half of small businesses, and a bunch of big businesses, are failing?

Poorly run and corrupt businesses have screwed millions of people. Enron is the prime example. Thousands of hardworking people lost their investments and their jobs. And Enron isn’t the only example of corruption. Siemens in 2008 paid 1.6 billion to settle a suit regarding bribing the Argentine government. KBR/Halliburton in 2009 paid 579million to settle for bribing Nigerian officials to get construction contracts, BAE Systems in 2010 paid 448million to settle allegations they bribed a Saudi Arabian ambassador $2billion for some arms deal. There are countless other examples, which you can read on thefiscaltimes.com. The examples of corporate corruptions are endless.

Nonprofits did not cause the recession. It wasn’t caused by nonprofits giving out loans to people to buy houses they can’t afford.

When businesses fail, nonprofits have to step in to help deal with repercussions. When people lose their jobs, (or their jobs and retirement savings because of the corrupt higher-ups at Enron), you can imagine that many of them will end up needing help with food and housing and counseling until they get back on their feet. We’re cleaning up a bunch of your messes, along with other ridiculously challenging issues in society, issues that you and the Government ignore or just suck at addressing.

And we’re doing it while navigating one of most complex, frustrating, and inefficient funding systems ever (See “The Sustainability Question, Why it is so annoying“). Do your shareholders and customers come to you and say, “So what percentage are you spending on overhead?” or “I don’t want my investment to be spent on your staff’s salary or your office rent; I want it to go directly into making the stocks increase in price” or “I’m only going to invest in your company for one year, because I don’t want you to be depending on my buying your stocks year after year. Tell me about your sustainability plan”?

We nonprofit types do not question for-profits’ value to society, and we don’t think we’re better than you. (I actually think we have an inferiority complex, which I’ll write about later). In fact, the opposite, we nonprofits actively court you to join our board and be involved with our work, which may have inadvertently led to your oversized ego. We nonprofit peeps accept that we play different yet equally critical roles in society.

There are a lot of you who are awesome, especially the ones who do volunteer on our boards and can see how much work we put in. But there are still many, many of you that I meet on a weekly basis who say crap like “You should create a business plan” that I just want to grab by the lapel and slap you around a little. Not enough to hurt you, but enough to shake loose some of this vexing air of superiority and haughtiness that surrounds you.

I wrote a letter to you a while ago, (“Dear business community, please remember these 10 things about nonprofit work”), and it would be great for some of you to re-read it. As I mentioned, comparing nonprofits to for-profits is like comparing apples to porcupines. So please knock it off. No one is better than anyone. We just do different stuff. Stop giving well-meaning but baseless and senseless advice, even though I’m sure the $500 or so we make from selling sausages each weekend would be helpful to our organizations. Stop saying dumbass and offensive things like “The only people who work at a nonprofit are the people who can’t it make it in the for-profit world.” That’s as dumbass and offensive as when people say “Those who can’t do, teach.” Focus on making 70% dark chocolate and new episodes of Game of Thrones, because some of us really need those things to keep fighting for social justice and equity. We have a lot of work to do to make the world better.

Sincerely, everyone in nonprofit.

(First published on Nonprofit with Balls: “Dear Business Community, Stop Thinking You are Better than Us Nonprofit Folks”)

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