Let's Do This!
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
How did the nonprofit industry sector get started? How did a career tract form that offers individuals the opportunity to seek ways to alleviate pain and suffering across the world and get paid for it?
The practice of helping those in need dates back thousands of years when a tax was levied against citizens to provide for the poor. Seriously, thousands of years ago, as far back as 2500 BC, there was a “poor tax”.
And the Bible confirms that this sector will always have those in need of service. In fact, throughout the Bible, scripture assures us that there will always be poor (Deuteronomy 15:11, Matthew 26:11, and John 12:8). And how did we manage that condition within the human race? Well, over time, governments have created services, departments, and bureaus to address the needs of those suffering from the injustices of systems that marginalize and alienate members of society. When government services were constrained due to budget challenges or political division, private citizens formed organizations to continue the service and programs needed to alleviate the needs of the poor in the short-term. These organizations were local in nature. Some of these organizations grew out of religious entities while others were formed by nonreligious community groups. Some of the organizations were founded to provide funding to find a cure for a life threatening disease
These organizations were known as charities. They provided an opportunity for those with means to help/support those without. Notice the emphasis here - those with means to support those without. Not solve the injustice. Not solve the issue causing the injustice. Not solve the systemic challenges causing the issue resulting in the injustice. Only providing means to support those without to weather the injustice itself.
Robert D. Lupton wrote a scathing account of the charity mindset in his book, Toxic Charity. His message is clear: Providing salves for those afflicted by injustice in the form of donations and hand out programs only serves to create a dependency of those being served. The approach is proven to alleviate immediate basic needs but does not get at the heart of dismantling the system itself. The practice also underscores the ability to use those who do not have to make those who do feel better about themselves.
Hear me out on this. I am not suggesting we close down monthly food distributions, book giveaways, clothing drives, toy drives, or the like. What I am saying is that as we look at the evolution of this sector, we must move to creating passion filled purpose driven organizations that seek solutions to in effect put themselves out of business or at least leave a community better than when they began to serve it or have dismantled the systemic cause of the injustice to a point where the community realizes it self-efficacy to minimize if not completely erase the effects of the injustice on their lives.
I’ve always been bugged by how this huge economic sector that sees billions of dollars infused into it is classified/named/referred to in a manner that fails to recognize all of the work, heartache, challenges, and successes over time it has realized around the world.
I mean, if you are in the industry that is working to make the world better by ending injustices that for hundreds of years have infected the global community, please tell me why we use a word that first and foremost explains/proclaims what the organization doesn’t do.
That’s right. These organizations whose founders and teams work way beyond the traditional corporate 40 hour week, are charged to stretch every single dollar raised farther than can be imagined in a corporate board room, are, because of the nomenclature introduced as the opposite of what in the world’s economy is understood as success - turning a profit. Rather, this sector is labeled nonprofit. As in we don’t, we won’t, maybe even we can’t turn a profit no matter the amount of impact and success we bring to the world.
Does that make sense to you?
And it all stems from the historic referencing of this sector from its early days of operation.
Let’s start with the word charity.
Tell me, when someone mentions the word “charity,” what is the first image that comes to your mind? For me, I conger up an image from the famous scene in Charles Dickens story of rags to riches Oliver Twist. The orphaned boys are slowly starving to death “surviving” on three meals a day of thin gruel in the workhouse they call home. The workhouse, by the way, where society puts them because they have no parents. They are supplied shelter, clothing, and food in return for their labor. They are taken care of to a point then age out to survive as best they can on their own in a world for which they are completely unprepared to flourish. (But society did give them shelter, clothing, and food, remember?) One night as they settled into sleep, one of the boys describes his hunger as so dire that he fears he will eat a weaker boy during the night because he is so hungry.
The boys hatched a plan for one of them to ask for a second helping of gruel from Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle, during an upcoming mealtime. Such a request made could cause considerable consequences to the one asking for the extra food. Shortly after the plan is made, Oliver is bullied by the other boys at his table to go against all protocols and rules to ask Mr. Bumble for more gruel. Slowly, Oliver stands up from his table. All eyes focus on him as he begins his walk towards the front of the room. Step by step, with a bowl held up by his skinny arms in his tiny 9 year old hands, Oliver arrives to the point where Mr. Bumble presides over the distribution of this mealtime’s gruel from a single pot. He lifts his bowl slowly into the air towards Mr. Bumble and utters one of the most famous lines in literature, “Please sir, may I have some more?”
Bumble bellows back, “You want MORE?”
And the rest, as you know, is fictional history.
There are two points to make from this idea around Oliver Twist as an image brought to mind when the word “charity” is used in conversation. One has to do with the effect the word “charity” has on how this sector is perceived in society and, perhaps more consequently, how the sector perceives itself when that word is used as a descriptive of its work.
Embedded within those terms is a positive response from those outside the sector. It is presupposed that professionals working for charities in the nonprofit ecosystem are motivated by the work rather than the pay. Nonprofit workers expect to work harder than anyone accumulating many extra hours over the conventional 40 because they are saving the world. They have this special relationship, some would describe as spiritual even altruistic, to the work making any concern or focus on the conventional terms of employment including salary, benefits, and advancement an affront of sorts to those in these positions.
Quite simply, the image of the nonprofit professional giving up their life at great cost, including financially, to ensure the delivery of the mission becomes the vision of exemplary leadership. This notion of the nonprofit employee is then leveraged to raise funds and to keep wages lower than similar positions in the for profit world.
This messaging is all wrong. We have convinced ourselves and therefore branded a career trajectory within this sector as one promising laudatory exclamations of reverence for sacrifice. It has an effect on the amount of talent seeking (or even considering) employment in the sector. Rather than even a cursory look at this sector we are leaving talented, motivated, and purpose filled people, especially recent graduates, out of the opportunity to put their skills, knowledge, and expertise to create solutions to the social injustices suffered across the world because of our errant messaging surrounding a career in this sector. We promise meaningful work that will certainly build your resume to sharpen your chances in securing employment in other sectors or graduate school, but do not make the case that a career in the social impact space can create the life you may envision.
Therefore, I propose an easy fix to begin the work of attracting talent to the sector and removing the tin cup approach of securing revenue to assure the delivery of the organization’s mission. Let’s change the nomenclature mistakenly assigned to the sector. These organizations create, measure, and assure positive impact to those their missions serve and those who fund those missions. The impact the sector creates globally touches all social aspects of humanity from trees to toddlers with efforts to end social injustices on a variety of scales and scopes.
Let’s remove the charity driven history of the sector embedded in the label of “nonprofit” and lift up the challenges faced and those served by renaming the organizations in this essential sector as social impact organizations. Then, this work and those who pour their talents, expertise, and experience can be celebrated for what they do rather than what they don’t.
Let’s do this!
Deb Macfarlan Enright, Ed.D. founded The Macfarlan Group in part to disrupt the stereotypes associated with the sector. She believes that to find solutions to end the injustices suffered in the world, we need our best and brightest attracted to this work. We need to attract new talent and expertise to lean in with new ideas to challenge long held assumptions about how work in the social impact world should be done. She strives to attract and retain talent now lost to other sectors in the economy due to perceptions of instability, low wages, and lack of advancement in the social impact ecosystem.
She would love to hear your thoughts on the matter: email@example.com