Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

March 8, 2010

Time to shatter negative nonprofit stereotype

By Todd Cohen

Nonprofits have taken a bad rap for way too long, and they need to be much more aggressive about telling their story.

The latest blow is new research that says their nonprofit status makes them seem less than competent.

And that perception makes people less likely to “buy” the products and services nonprofits provide, say researchers at Stanford University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Pennsylvania.

However unfair those findings may seem to a sector that continually is asked to do more with less, they reflect a much deeper problem for nonprofits.

They are overworked, underpaid, taken for granted, and expected to work miracles cleaning up our messiest social and global problems.

Despite the obstacles they face and the resources they lack, nonprofits still manage to employ people who are smart, work hard and care about making a difference.

Yet too few nonprofit boards have even a clue their job is to set a vision for the organization, and to help strengthen it and raise money to help it run and grow.

And while nonprofits urgently need funds to support their operations and build their capacity, many charitable foundations and corporate-giving programs prefer to support their own pet programs and projects, and they expect nonprofits to invest time and money they cannot afford tracking their impact and effectiveness.

As the icing on their cake, nonprofits also are expected to take a vow of poverty, with the media and other disengaged critics quick to raise a stink if nonprofit professionals actually get pay and compensation that even begins to value their work and worth.

And now they are told their very status as nonprofits makes them seem less than competent.

While they struggle to keep on keeping on, nonprofits also need to start speaking up and making clear who they are, what they do, their impact and their needs.

Instead of groveling to funders and givers, nonprofits need to act as equal partners in working to engage their supporters.

And instead of trying to parrot the technical and philanthropically-correct jargon of funders, trade groups and consultants, nonprofits need to be clear, passionate and authentic in telling their stories, and using the forms of media best suited to reach the audiences they need to reach.

Nonprofits are heroes, not unskilled hired help, and they need to start owning their role and championing their worth.


  • At 12:00 PM, Anonymous Carol Palmatier said…

    Well said, Todd. Imagine how much easier it will be to engage our key supporters when we proudly tie on our super-hero capes and boldly proclaim what it is we do...instead of meekly asking for more ala Oliver Twist.

    Social change and non-profit work is not for the weak or lesser among us. Web 2.0 gives us the perfect platform for engagement, education and paradigm-shifting.

  • At 4:47 PM, Anonymous Mazarine said…

    Dear Todd,

    I agree, nonprofits need to be able to be more empowered. And in order to do that, I would argue that we need to empower workers first, and have nonprofit unions. If people feel that their opinions matter, that their needs are taken into account, that they won't be fired for saying the wrong thing, then suddenly nonprofits are going to be great places to work. People will get better wages, and will want to stay there. The nonprofit turnover will decrease, and efficiency will increase.

    What do you think?


  • At 1:57 PM, Blogger Hannah said…

    thank you! this is so empowering!


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