Escif, El rescate del euro (Niort, France)

The Misplaced Pride of Non-Profit Leaders

And Our Need to Get Over Overhead & Even More into Impact

It’s been a busy month as I’ve been making my rounds attending and speaking at events for and about the non-profit/charitable sector. I love connecting with some of the sharpest, most passionate, and driven people who are genuinely trying to make the world a better place in their own way. It’s always invigorating and inspiring.

But it can also get frustrating. Almost every time, I’m struck by a misplaced pride in the way non-profit leaders operate and speak about their organizations. Most non-profit leaders have been conditioned to tout the fact that their non-profit or charity is mostly or entirely volunteer-based, that they have no physical office, that they have next to zero overhead costs.

And it drives me nuts because what kind of standards are we setting for the people who have dedicated their lives for the betterment of others?

When it comes to the non-profit and charitable sector, our society discriminates. Our society first and foremost rewards organizations for forgoing the very resources that are critical for accomplishing any goal (purpose- or profit-driven), instead of rewarding their actual impact and results. When it comes to the non-profit and charitable sector, our society fosters a culture of smallness, a culture that prohibits growth or change in any real, wide-sweeping, and profound way.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? When giving, how often has your first question ever been “how much of my money goes to administrative or overhead costs?”.

The expectation to impact real, big social change on the backs of volunteers, without an actual reasonable space to conduct productive work, and using donated or at least discounted software is shortsighted, untenable, and honestly unfair.

Just last week, a research report published by the Mowat Centre found that:

“Though many organizations in the NFP sector are focused on providing employment services, alleviating poverty and promoting community health and well-being, little attention is paid to the sector’s role as an employer in promoting these same goals. Too often, program demands are pitted against investment in organizational support and management. However, poor working conditions are not only bad for individuals — they also have a negative impact on organizations, compromising their ability to meet goals, missions and mandates. For the sector, this means that fewer people are helped and less progress is made on social issues.” — Change Work: Valuing decent work in the not-for-profit sector, report by the Mowat Centre.

Those in the non-profit sector are some of the most resourceful people out there. This climate of fear towards overhead has made us into some of the most creative bootstrappers around. I’m not saying we should lose that quality in ourselves. We shouldn’t suddenly be spending donated dollars to foosball tables or napping pods à la Silicon Valley; there still needs to be accountability. But the conversation does need to shift away from this obsession over administrative cost and towards solutions, results, and impact. Isn’t that the whole point anyway?

I’m fortunate to work with an organization that challenges old models by employing lean business principles to ensure sustainability, attempts to pay fair and competitive wages, recognizes the need to invest in marketing and promotions, and creates new avenues of income generation for its part-time employees. We aren’t perfect but we’re trying to get there.

Most importantly, we’re fostering a culture that recognizes the need not just to properly compensate the imagination and skills of the people who make good shit happen, but also the need to take risks innovating in our programming, operations, and, (shock!) marketing strategies, to make even greater shit happen.

Non-profit leaders aren’t solely responsible for this overhead-over-impact thinking, but we are absolutely responsible for perpetuating the mentality. I urge us to start challenging the double standard against our sector, to shift the discourse, and to help build a culture that recognizes the cost of the work that we do and respects it.

Change don’t come easy and it sure as hell won’t come free.