Vu Le irreverently takes on the frustrating reality nonprofit leaders face when they are judged as for-profit businesses.
A couple of months ago I was at a conference, and during lunch the keynote speaker got up and paced the stage and mentioned several times about how we nonprofits need to be more like for-profits. Despite the two drinks I had had that morning—stop judging; it was a Saturday—I found myself getting more and more irritated. This happens over and over. Seriously, if I hear one more person blather on and on about how we primitive, inept do-gooders should learn from our sophisticated siblings from the business sector and get into earned-income and blah blah, I’m going to roll my eyes so hard that they will pop out of my head, and then I will have to find them to put them back in my eye sockets but I won’t be able to see so I will have to feel around on the floor to find them while freaked-out passers-by scream all around me.
Our nonprofit sector has an identity issue, and I think we should resolve this if we are going to reach our potential. Are we nonprofits businesses, or are we something else entirely? I’ve talked to lots of nonprofit leaders who are proud of their work and who say, “Nonprofit businesses are businesses! But instead of making money for our stockholders, we create dividends in benefits to the community!”
But lately, I’ve started wondering if perpetuating this philosophy is actually harming us. Ideally, yes, we are businesses, and we should be accorded the same level of respect. But the frustrating reality is that we are judged as businesses without given the rights and resources to fully operate as businesses. If funders and donors and society want us to be like businesses, then fine, but we also need the following:
Invest significant funding: For the past few months, I’ve been using Bitmoji, an app that turns people into hilarious—and slightly creepy—cartoons. Guess what? Bitstrips, the company behind this app, got $8M in funding in 2014. That’s right, 8 million. From ONE funder. $8,000,000 in one year for an app. That turns people. Into. Cartoons. Meanwhile, most of us, who are helping homeless veterans and hungry families and changing unjust laws and saving rain forests—we never ever get anywhere near that. Last week I found out my org is getting a $25,000 grant, about 3% of my budget, and I collapsed on the floor, weeping unicorn tears of joy. Sigh…the things so many of us could do if we got $8M upfront…
Make funding decisions faster: I don’t know how fast banks and Venture Capitalists take on average to make an investment, but here’s one VC’s answer: “For a Series A deal, I’d put the average at 4-6 weeks between term sheet signed & money in the bank. This is inclusive of final due diligence, lawyers bickering, etc, which can take a lot longer in subsequent rounds. YMMV.” That acronym, by the way, I just learned stands for “Your mileage may vary.” Four to six weeks is probably not the norm. It probably takes a little longer. But nowhere near as long as what we nonprofits deal with when waiting for investment decisions, anywhere from 3 months to 12 months to whenever Saturn is in Scorpio.
Get over overhead: The holidays are coming up, and that means there are going to be insipid, ignorant articles advising people to donate money based on organizations’ overhead percentages. Why are we still even talking about this? Do we care how much Toys ‘R Us spend on electricity and copy paper when we buy a My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic action figure? Do we care how much of our $1 go to the salary of the CEO of Bitstrip when we buy an add-on package? If for-profits are allowed to spend money on advertisement—99.9% of the ads on TV and in print are about for-profit stuff!—then why shouldn’t we nonprofits? If for-profits can have decent work spaces and competitive salaries, why shouldn’t we also? A colleague pointed out that tech workers are making salaries close to 300K to engage in various projects, many of which fail, while many nonprofit folks make a fraction of that doing things most of us would agree are important to society, and we have to defend our wages each day.
Focus on results: One of the few times I’ve thought about quitting my job or even the sector—and pursuing my dream of writing and directing “Nonprofit: The Musical”—was when I was forced to spend 10 hours trying to fill out a funder’s financial report that requested a breakdown of how much that funder paid for every line item. If a business is doing well while treating workers fairly and not harming the environment, then why should anyone give a crap how it’s spending money? Same should go for a nonprofit. Want us to act more like businesses? Then society should focus on the results and stop micromanaging us nonprofits so we can do our jobs.
Get over sustainability: No one goes into an Apple store and say, “How are you going to sustain your business after I’ve bought my iPhone and I’m no longer here?” If a product is good and you want the company to keep making it and developing new models, then you buy it and you tell your friends about it, that’s how the business is sustainable, the end. Same should go for nonprofits. If services are good, support the nonprofit so it keeps providing them. The end. (See “Why the Sustainability Myth is just as destructive as the Overhead Myth.”)
Increase funds to parallel results: As I mentioned in “Dear business community, please remember these ten things about nonprofit work,” a huge difference between the two sectors is that for nonprofits, the more successful we are at achieving results, the more expenses and liabilities we incur without an equal increase in revenues. An afterschool program does well and triples the number of students it serves, for example, doesn’t automatically get triple the funding/donations it receives; if anything, it will still struggle to keep existing revenues sources, as few funders do multi-year investments. If you want us to act like businesses, then prepare to increase investments as results and demands increase.
Accept risk and failure: For some reason, it’s OK to invest millions into Google Glass, or the Amazon phone, or the various buy-outs of smaller companies, or whatever, only for them to fail, lose a ton of money, and then chalk it up as a normal part of business. And yet, society invests much smaller amounts to solve complex entrenched social problems, expects miracles, and gets disappointed when we don’t meet outcomes. It’s going to take a while, and significant resources, and the acceptance of failure if we have any hope of solving serious issues like homelessness and human trafficking.
Speaking of failure, as I mentioned in “Dear business community, stop thinking you are better than us nonprofit folks,” about half of all new businesses fail after four years. Some estimates are as high as 80% failing after 18 months. (And “incompetence” accounts for 46% of the failures.)
Given all these statistics about for-profits, and restrictions on nonprofits, should we really keep insisting that we are businesses, that we are pretty much the same as for-profits, but different? Can we just not be the awesome unicorn sector that we are? Do we need to compete with for-profits on their terms when we are so different? I am open to counterarguments, but right now, I don’t see the advantages. If we want to be seen as equal to, and treated with the same considerations as, for-profits, then we need to fight for the above demands. Society needs to provide nonprofits with the same level of funding, speed of investment, flexibility, autonomy, and acceptance of risk and failure, or else stop trying to get us nonprofits to be more like for-profits. You can’t have your nonprofit cake and yet withhold your for-profit icing. Either we are fully businesses, with all the rights that entail, or else we are beautiful and complex snowflakes of equity and justice and need different considerations.
Until we resolve this, until society’s priorities shift so that we invest $8M in improving the foster care system or helping our veterans before—or simultaneously as—we put it in an app that turns people into cartoons, then when it comes to us nonprofits’ being able to help solve society’s problems…well, YMMV.
Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps. Known for his irreverent sense of humor, Vu's work has been featured at Nonprofit Quarterly, GuideStar's blog, Chronicle of Philanthropy, as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com, formerly nonprofitwithballs.com.
This piece was originally published at Vu Le's blog, NonprofitAF.com.
1 thought on “Hey, you want nonprofits to act more like businesses?”
I practiced business and nonprofit law for 36 years and then joined an organization (TANGO), which has a mission that includes the following:
TANGO’s mission is to build bridges between the nonprofit sector and the business sector. The mission is based on the belief that the interests of the sectors are capable of being aligned, and that communities do better when their interests are aligned. An alignment of interests is not the same as a merger of interests. Each sector is responsible for different tasks within a community, both sets of tasks are necessary conditions for community stability, and each sector should be allowed to perform the tasks for which it is best suited without undue interference from the other. However, recognizing the equally important role each sector plays in the community, the sectors should support each other, and doing this will require a bridge over which information, ideas, problems, solutions, and goals are exchanged freely in both directions. The principles upon which the bridge will be built are the TANGO Founding Principles appearing at the beginning of our textbook, The TANGO Nonprofit Method. This Blog is one component part of the bridge we will be building, and it will be both a platform and a portal to identify relevant information, ideas, problems and solutions and to discuss them openly and critically. Finally, our roots are in the business sector, and we will bring “business-like” rigor to our commentary. We will be frank and clear so as not to be misunderstood, while always being respectful. We also invite counter-opinion from those who disagree. Having said this, our critique of nonprofit sector organizations will be based on the following rigorous standards and principles….
Here’s a link to my book: https://www.tangoalliance.org/education/
I’m just a quasi-retired guy trying to add some value to the world. Don’t know if I am right but I’ve studied and lived these question a long time and would be interested in further conversations to exchange and test ideas and to develop new ones.