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.

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