Why I Don’t Work For A Nonprofit

by Nate St. Pierre on March 18, 2013

Over the past four years, I’ve had a lot of success in building global movements, which is a fancy way of saying that I’m good at getting people to believe in an idea that’s important enough to get them up off their couches to go do something to help.

I have a skill set that people in the nonprofit world desperately need, but no matter how many times they’ve asked me to come work for them, I’ve turned them down. Here’s why:

“I want to talk about how the things we’ve been taught to think about giving and about charity and about the nonprofit sector are actually undermining the causes we love and our profound yearning to change the world.”

Dan Pallotta
TED Talk, “The Way We Think About Charity Is Dead Wrong

^What he said. Seriously. His entire video is great, but if you’re crunched for time, watch from 1:00 – 5:00, and 17:00 on. You’ll also find some more quotes sprinkled into this article.

Whenever I entertain the thought of joining up with a nonprofit, it takes about three seconds for my mind to come back with the biggest reason it’s never going to work (all my friends in the sector may want to cover their eyes for this part): most nonprofits are risk-averse, small-minded organizations, and always will be. I see this problem as being equal parts the organization itself and equal parts society’s view of what a nonprofit should be.

“The third area of discrimination is the taking of risk in pursuit of new ideas for generating revenue. So Disney can make a new $200 million movie that flops, and nobody calls the attorney general. But you do a little $1 million community fundraiser for the poor, and it doesn’t produce a 75 percent profit to the cause in the first 12 months, and your character is called into question. So nonprofits are really reluctant to attempt any brave, daring, giant-scale new fundraising endeavors for fear that if the thing fails, their reputations will be dragged through the mud. Well, you and I know when you prohibit failure, you kill innovation. If you kill innovation in fundraising, you can’t raise more revenue. If you can’t raise more revenue, you can’t grow. And if you can’t grow, you can’t possibly solve large social problems.”

I literally cannot work in an environment that stays conservative and fears failure. My nature is to do creative, original things that have never been done before, and this naturally carries with it a high potential for failure. I’m not gonna lie, I fail a lot. I just do. But it’s all part of the game, and every time I fail, I learn something valuable from it and come back bigger, better and stronger. I also hit some home runs along the way, and over time I end up raising the bar for just about everyone. That’s how my skill set works.

If I were to bring this mentality and work style to a nonprofit, odds are I would quit or be fired within six months. Probably both. If you’re worried about creating goals that are easily identifiable and easily accomplished within a set of parameters, or worse, if you’re concerned with looking bad to the general public if you don’t do these things in a certain way, then I can’t work for you. Because I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen when I come up with something completely unorthodox and release it out into the wild. And what’s more, I don’t want to know what will happen. I want to see some beautiful chaos at first, and then out of that we can pull whatever gem might emerge. These two approaches don’t play nicely together, and it quickly becomes a bad fit for both sides.

I’m not going to worry about the fact that our target demographic mainly cares about this certain thing, and only tends to donate in this certain type of situation, blah blah blah. I’m going to think about what’s going to happen when the entire world knows about and cares about the problem we’re solving. That’s when things start to get interesting, and that’s when you can start to effect major change.

“So we’ve all been taught that charities should spend as little as possible on overhead things like fundraising under the theory that, well, the less money you spend on fundraising, the more money there is available for the cause. Well, that’s true if it’s a depressing world in which this pie cannot be made any bigger. But if it’s a logical world in which investment in fundraising actually raises more funds and makes the pie bigger, then we have it precisely backwards, and we should be investing more money, not less, in fundraising, because fundraising is the one thing that has the potential to multiply the amount of money available for the cause that we care about so deeply.”

It’s really that simple in my mind – it’s a big world, with limitless possibilities. Let’s make the pie bigger, any way we can (within ethical limits, of course). We should not be afraid to do things that matter, things that force people to acknowledge our existence in one way or another, and most importantly, force them to think about the things we are saying, and come to their own conclusions. The last thing we should be is ignored, which unfortunately is where most risk-averse nonprofits live. But when you get to the stage where you can’t be ignored, you can start working on scalable solutions to world-sized problems, instead of just talking about them.

“This is what happens when we confuse morality with frugality. We’ve all been taught that the bake sale with five percent overhead is morally superior to the professional fundraising enterprise with 40 percent overhead, but we’re missing the most important piece of information, which is, what is the actual size of these pies? Who cares if the bake sale only has five percent overhead if it’s tiny? What if the bake sale only netted 71 dollars for charity because it made no investment in its scale and the professional fundraising enterprise netted 71 million dollars because it did? Now which pie would we prefer, and which pie do we think people who are hungry would prefer?”

It’s no secret that I don’t have a lot of love for nonprofits, and that’s really too bad, because people like me would be great additions to their teams. But people like me aren’t going to join their teams until we start seeing more boldness, creativity, and even a touch of fearlessness out of them.

I never thought twice about the clean water problem in Africa until I started seeing the incredible creative marketing of charity: water. I never thought about aligning myself with a team helping people raise money for medical need until I saw the personal stories and life-changing results generated by the GiveForward team (disclosure: GiveForward is a for-profit social enterprise, and my new employer, but that’s a story for another article).

People like me don’t always do what we do for the money or the title or the recognition. We often do it because creation is how we express ourselves, and we capture our joy from those moments where we get to break people out of their traditional ways of thinking and doing things, and pave the way for countless new stories to be told.

In short, we strive to change the world.

“Now we’re talking the potential for real change. But it’s never going to happen by forcing these organizations to lower their horizons to the demoralizing objective of keeping their overhead low.

Our generation does not want its epitaph to read, “We kept charity overhead low.” We want it to read that we changed the world, and that part of the way we did that was by changing the way we think about these things. So the next time you’re looking at a charity, don’t ask about the rate of their overhead. Ask about the scale of their dreams, their Apple-, Google-, Amazon-scale dreams, how they measure their progress toward those dreams, and what resources they need to make them come true regardless of what the overhead is. Who cares what the overhead is if these problems are actually getting solved?”

Amen, brother.

  • Marie Sabelko

    I saw this TED talk last week and totally agree… and I work for a non-profit. Things need to change.

  • Ditto Marie.

    As someone who does technically work for a non-profit… yes.

    I feel like that’s a problem.

  • Kerry Goodrich

    Well Said.

  • Mel Majoros

    GiveForward rocks!!!

  • Spot on Nate. If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, we should be hearing mom’s voice loud and clear.

  • JM

    I work for a nonprofit and I see both sides of this. One huge issue is that funders (and donors to a large extent) do not want to fund operating expense, infrasturcture, and fundraising… yet all of these are critical to the functioning of a nonprofit. People want to see their money going to help the ___ (fill in the target population of the charity) and don’t understand that staff need computers and management and a building to make these things happen. I think you are preaching to the choir; we know these things. I think the education needs to be directed at donors, foundations and other funders.

  • Nate – this is indeed a great TED talk and the message is very on point. I agree. And, I sincerely appreciate your honest thoughts. However, I think you may have fallen victim to your own perspective. To do creative, original things, you can’t dump a whole sector into one bucket – don’t you think that’s a bit limiting? Yes, there are many non-profits that are risk-averse, and having worked on both sides of the profit world I get it, but for many reasons that are not always easy to understand from the outside. So, after reading what you had to say, I’m left wondering – Wouldn’t leaping into the non-profit world that needs creative, risk-taking talent, with the possibility of creating GREAT change, be one of the greatest risks of all?

    • I was wondering who would be the first person to bring up this point. 🙂

      Leaping into the nonprofit world and becoming a shining example of what one of those organizations COULD be (both from the inside and influencing outside perspectives), working to totally change the game, would indeed be a noble undertaking. But that’s not what I want to spend my life doing.

      I want to touch individual lives and tell amazing stories, and I’ve found roles that enable me to do that in ways that are meaningful to me. So I’m not the nonprofit champion. I do, however, have a voice in the space, and I’m using it (as in this article) to get people to think about the big picture a little more, and maybe THEY will want to be the ones to jump in and effect change.

      • Susan

        Your post makes me excited and mad. I am a writer who freelances for many, many nonprofits (through a marketing agency that hires them.) I recently created a video that speaks directly to the funding issue in this TED talk. That’s why I’m excited to see the idea gaining traction. But I’m more mad at you. You want to change the world but admit you want to make sure you’re fulfilled first. That’s honest and icky at the same time. If you really want to change the world and you have thrust yourself into the conversation about what’s broken in the system that’s working to change the world (nonprofits) isn’t it incredibly small of you to shine a huge light on a really important problem and then walk away because it doesn’t provide a platform that’s “meaningful” for you? If you are actually the really creative guy you claim to be then it would be more meaningful for you to accept your own challenge and make it meaningful! Just laying it out there and walking away seems kinda gross. Unless it is your plan to create a new system for changing the world that does away with the need for traditional non-profits. That might work. It’s pie in the sky but go for it. Otherwise, there is an incredible amount of truth in the power of working within a system to fix it. Don’t mean to get all bumper-stickery on you but Be the Change You Want to See in the World, dude.

        • I’m going to assume that you aren’t aware of the “Change the World” projects I’ve spent four years building (and still run) on my own time and my own income, touching millions of lives . . . just like most of the better nonprofits do.

          Once you’ve seen and understand that, and if you still have this same comment and opinion, please let me know, and we can go from there.

  • Lynn

    You really hit the nail on the head. Now I can see why a non-profit I do a lot of work for has a very conservative, take no risks director. We can’t move or do anything for the director is very risk-adverse, comfortable in her job and will continue that way till she retires. It’s too bad non-profits can’t do more or be more creative.

  • Nate, love this! I, too, watched this talk last week. And I watched Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk. And I watched another excellent, short video on the limitations we’ve put upon the nonprofit sector by failing to fund infrastructure or INSISTING that all money go straight to help clients, like you can click a button and food will show up right in their pockets.

    I’m working on a presentation intended to frame this conversation in our local community – there are so many elements to it, ranging from funding infrastructure to new concepts of community engagement to requesting support not based on fear or guilt but rather out of inspiring hope and change. People should WANT to give to support us, right?

    Anyway, I’m hoping you won’t mind if I include a link to your post?

    And it’s great to see you’re still going strong!


    • Of course, Mickey, link away! Glad you’re framing up a conversation around it – that’s all I’m hoping to do here . . . get more qualified people like you talking about it. I’ll consider that a win any day. 🙂

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  • Jennifer Ruwart

    Very thought provoking post. My road to nonprofit was a bit curvy-corporate gig, Peace Corps, International MBA, lots of travel… I’ve always said entering the nonprofit sphere was like diving into icy water. It wasn’t until I heard Dan Pallota (cue the choir) speak in 2010 that I understood why.

    I have tried to “leave” nonprofit for years but always get drawn back in. I am coming to accept that I am meant to be one of the ones rattling the cages from within. I don’t think you have to work for a nonprofit though to effect change. You’re doing groovy things. Amen.

    We need more people across society challenging and changing the dysfunctional relationship we have as a whole with so-called “charities”. In my mind, NPO is a tax-status, not a business model.

    Thanks for igniting this conversation.

  • Great article! I worked for a non-profit that has been around for 100 years and you can tell! Their aversion to any risk has actually backfired and now they are scrambling to be relevant, the national office making what I saw as poor decisions for the local councils to follow. Total upheaval.

    I will never work for a non-profit again. After 16 years I had enough of being stifled and dealing with antiquated ways of work. I once was “invited” to a meeting on developing procedures for developing procedures. I brought up just how silly that was. I am surprised I was not fired – I was a boat rocker! I think I wasn’t because no one else wanted the job I had.

    Anyway, I now own a business that works with start-up and small non-profits in the areas of grant writing and management and volunteer/staff development and training.

    I hope to affect change that way.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Kelry Olson

    Well…. I must admit that this article was certainly one to provoke me. I am looking over my response and I see that it is MUCH longer than I anticipated! (Sorry :/ ) But anyways, I digress:

    I, like many, have always wanted to feel like I am changing the world. Since I was young, I spent hours thinking of ways that I would be able to make the world a better place. However, my ideas of how I would change the world were drastically transformed when God decided to change my perspective a bit. What drives so many to serve? In the beginning, for me, it was that I was hardened by difficulties, I was angry at the way the world was, and I wanted desperately to find the goodness…to be the goodness.

    I began working and am currently working for a small non-profit. Youth-driven, majority youth-led, and 100% unpredictable, I have learned a number of things in an incredibly short time that, in fact, completely displace many of the points you brought up in your article. Is it that I am young and naive that I believe my organization to be different from so many out there? Perhaps. But I don’t believe that.

    Now, I am not trying to disprove your theory as a whole because I completely agree that perhaps 99% of the non-profits out there fall into the categories you defined. In your article you are speaking about organizations that are run, led, funded, and driven by adults. Adults that, perhaps at one time had a desire to change the world but have been hardened by what they now understand the world to be, and have since become uninspired. Adults that think on a risk/reward basis, and that have learned it is better to keep a thing stable and afloat, than open sail and be driven by the wind…maybe into a storm.

    The organization I am apart of is run by kids. Well, “youth”. The youth do the research. The youth interview possible grantees, and run their own Information sessions. Youth that assess the budget, that decide who becomes a grantee, and follow up with them. Youth that learn leadership, grant writing, compassion, and resilience. That come from wide ranges of backgrounds. Sometimes the snacks they get here are the only meals they get for the week. Sometimes the year or summer they spend here is the most stable environment or schedule they will ever experience. Youth that present outrageous proposals to adult leadership all over this city, and know that they could be turned down for funding, but never doubt that it will come through somehow and eventually. So, the child-like faith, and creativity, and drive, is what makes this organization one of risk to begin with. They believe. And when there is failure, they bounce back quickly and are once again rejuvenated by the belief that they can still make a difference.

    The other thing that makes this place different from those so desolately described in your article, is the faith here. Although not advertised or known as a “religious organization” by any means whatsoever, almost everything the youth do, or how they are expected to conduct themselves to everyone they encounter- are biblically based principals that keep them grounded, humble, willing to take risks, willing to love, and willing to BELIEVE.

    Currently, some of us staff are working for nothing. RISK. The youth haven’t had meals provided by us in over a month. RISK. We are planning an event that there is no money to carry out. BIG RISK. But does that discourage or stop them? Absolutely not. The seeds of love they sow all over this city are starting to sprout and grow…. and like He promises in His word… the return of the seeds sown IN FAITH are about to come back to them a hundred fold! Do they know that yet? No. But they continue to take huge risks as we keep plugging ahead, opening the doors every day, loving on people on the streets, cultivating these youthful hearts that love to give, and building leadership through that love of giving. They set their sights high, and daily cultivate a GLOBAL view of the problems they are trying to tackle- even though much of the work done is for local neighborhoods. Its really incredible.

    Now, I know- I have just painted a picture of movie-like narration. Cue the “Remember the Titans” victory music. But its the truth. I don’t disagree with your article Nate. I agree with you wholeheartedly about the reasons that you pose for not working for a non-profit.

    But I think another thing to consider is what drives the people, or organization to give in the first place. Each of them has a different or similar mission to the next…. but what is really DRIVING THEM? I can tell you that what drives me now is much different than what drove me a few a years ago. Now, I don’t want to limit myself to all the ways that I can think of to change the world. That’s not enough for me. Gods thoughts are higher than mine. His ways are greater than mine. His love is much more huge and unfathomable and life-changing than mine. He is what drives me to give. His love through me is what makes me able to impact lives on a greater scale than even I know. And when I keep it that way, then the impact of what I do is something bigger than anything I could ask or imagine. When we do things His way, we aren’t changing lives, we are defining a generation. We aren’t loving people, we are rebuilding hearts, inspiring hope, driving change. Then the risks we take that may seem so silly to those big corporations or other non-profits, end up blowing them away.

    People have a lot of different answers to why they give or are involved in projects like yours or why they work (or don’t work) for a non-profit. I believe that if I were you, and traveled as much as you have, and met as many people as you have, then I would perhaps evaluate the heart behind those organizations or people that decide to take risk or not to. Some are as you say, and some are not.

    I can tell you that we take risk. We think big. We make faith-based and not fear-based decisions. I applaud you on what you do and your reasons behind it. I simply wanted to share that I work for a non-profit….and its one of the best things I’ve ever decided to do 🙂

    • This response was better than my original article. If you ever want to go to lunch and discuss all of this in greater detail, I would be happy to. You know where to find me. 🙂

  • egg

    What you don’t mention here is what we are actually risking in the pursuit of higher creativity and awareness. It is much different than what Disney risks when it makes a new movie. We are risking people’s lives. The things they need to survive. Failure for a nonprofit means thousands of people who are now without food. Shelter. Healthcare. Education. Futures. It is a risk we cannot afford to take.

    So I agree, we need to find a way to be ABLE to afford to take those risks. I love the Dan Pallotta TED talk and work for a nonprofit as a grant writer. But it just seems to me that we can’t skip straight from where we are now to jumping headfirst into undefined and undirected creative risks. There is too much to lose.

    There are a lot of foundations out there that say they value things like “innovation” and “learning from experience”. I haven’t been around in this sector long enough to see if they actually walk that walk. But that would be a start. Sadly, the clearest way I see this change happening is coming from the people with the money that pays nonprofits. If those people truly develop a willingness to directly invest in risky, experimental endeavors…then maybe we could really get somewhere.

    And maybe at the grassroots level this could gain momentum too. If the Overhead Myth and Pallotta’s ideas truly start to gain social weight and interest, and enough people throw weight into them and are willing to invest their own money in these risks…then maybe we could really get somewhere.

    Nonprofits can help to spread the word. They can talk honestly about the damage done to their operations and programs by the pressure to keep overhead low. And they can increase collaboration with other groups with common missions so that they can share ideas and lessons learned more widely. They can take small steps to invest more in fundraising and try new tactics. But to really accelerate this otherwise slow, steady progress toward change… others outside the sector have to start listening and develop the willingness to invest their own money in these risks.

    And then nonprofits will need to recognize this tide as its turning and provide newly interested funders with excellent opportunities to get involved. If public opinion does indeed shift and funders do become willing to invest in risk, nonprofits will need to get their heads out of the sand and step up to the plate. That will be the clincher. Here’s hoping.

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