I am always asked why I chose to work in the nonprofit field. Except the questions usually go more like this, “Why would you EVER want to work for a nonprofit instead of a business???” So, as some people know, a nonprofit is a business. In most cases they are so efficient and fiscally sound, running with minimal administrative costs, that if they were for-profit, they would make their stockholders very, very happy. I have also fielded questions like, “If you work for a nonprofit, do they actually pay you? I thought they were all volunteers!”; and of course there are many nonprofits that do operate without any paid employees, but that is not the norm and certainly a topic for a separate blog regarding the powerful impact of the nonprofit workforce. These questions that people ask me, are so basic and filled with such obvious misinformation, it brings up the topic of nonprofits as I have to recognize that there is an entire world out there not made up of nonprofits. So, I thought it was worth reflecting on a few of the reasons why the nonprofit field isn’t for everyone and perhaps why it has been for the right field for me, so far.
First and foremost, the nonprofit world is often filled with personal heartbreak; there is no other way to describe it. Complete and total heartbreak, as in sob yourself to sleep at the unfairness of the world heartbreak. I’ve had my heart broken over and over working in this field for two decades. Often it’s the clients, their compelling stories, their day to day struggles, and their tragedies that break our hearts. Seeing their daily struggles and the completely unjust circumstances that have often put them on a path that makes coping with daily life almost impossible can be very difficult to witness and seemingly impossible to just shut work off at the end of a long day. Of course you rally for them; you try to do everything in your power to even the playing field, gathering as many resources as possible, to truly make a difference. Sometimes we can get past these losses, and other times they become the reason many leave the field and choose another career that is less intense, to avoid seeing such blatant pain and the stark misfortune of others which can be difficult to cope with day in and day out.
And then there is the heartbreak resulting from the actual work and organization itself. This can be the loss of a grant, funding cuts that result in lay-off of amazing and loyal staff members, elimination of a program or service because of a current political view, or the failure of the organization’s leadership to plan or adjust their thinking to needed and necessary changes. And these organizational heartbreaks don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the heartbreak and fracture a Board can cause to an organization.
So as you can see, while nonprofits are mission driven, they are also a business. When we look at the collective network of nonprofits, they represent a sector that is most valuable to the economy, both in terms of employing individuals and providing services. Yet, too often, we do not hold nonprofits to the standards we should, we give too many chances in some cases and not enough accountability in other areas and we allow mediocrity to settle in to organizations. According to the Internal Revenue Service, in 2013 there were 1.41 million nonprofits registered which accounted for 5.4% of the country’s gross domestic product. These non-profits contributed an estimated $905.9 billion to the US economy according to a recent brief in the Urban Institute.
So, with all of the nonprofits that make up a significant portion of the economy, why is it that some people leave the field and some people remain? There is a popular proverb that goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I use this as a beacon when working with nonprofits. It is not enough to want to do good as there is no merit in merely wishing; we must be intentional and transparent in our actions and in our engagement so we can realize measured outcomes that pave the way for the greater good.
Perhaps that’s why I have chosen to work in the nonprofit sector- there are boundless opportunities to actually do good work while sharing a common mission. Yes, there is heartbreak, make no mistake; it is often messy work and difficult work. Yet, after two decades, I still believe we can change the world. That’s why I make a conscious choice to continue in this field, teaching, mentoring, sharing my knowledge, skill sets and lessons learned and challenging others to create an intentional path that others can follow. So, if you see me at a party, please, go ahead and ask me a crazy question about nonprofits, but be ready for a very long winded answer about one of my favorite topics.
 The Nonprofit Sector in Brief 2015: Public Charities, Giving, and Volunteering