Non-Profit Myths: Unpacking the Misconceptions

The opinions/views expressed by the author is theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or position of Endeavour.

Author: Carissa MacLennan, Education Manager, UNICEF and Endeavour Consultant

I recently had a conversation with someone from the financial sector on my work in the non-profit sector.  At one point I was asked how I could afford to spend so much of my time volunteering.  I was confused; volunteering? Slowly the wheels started to turn; this individual did not understand I was paid for my work in the non-profit sector – that this was my career. It was assumed I was a full-time volunteer. The revelation of this assumption about non-profit work was a big “aha” moment and I have since made myself cognizant of the misconceptions and myths about the sector, the existence of which can hinder the ability of non-profits to maximize their impact.

Here are a few of the myths and misconceptions I have encountered in conversations outside of my sector and I believe are worth highlighting:

1. The Cheaper the Better: Non-profits are expected to have low administration costs. I recently read an article praising non-profits who kept spending on administration at 10%. Although it is important that non-profits maximize their spending on programming, low administration costs do not ensure, and often puts at risk, the ability of an organization to achieve their goals.

2. Non-profit’s Can’t: Discourse and literature on non-profits sometimes draw conclusions that challenges experienced by the sector are due to incompetency. This discourse should be more critical of the reasons for these challenges, such as pressure to keep administration costs low and how this impacts the quantity and quality of staff to develop, deliver, and measure effective programming.

3. No Logos: Marketing is seen as a luxury expense in which non-profits should not invest.However, most non-profits have a product, such as social or environmental change, and this product needs investment and a sustainable revenue base, just as companies who sell insurance, IT, or gum. Social change, especially when it is not tangible (building a school) but higher level (policy-change) is challenging to market. Until the general public is more knowledgeable on what constitutes effective social performance, non-profits have to be able to invest in their messaging and branding.

4. Free Labour: Many people believe non-profits should rely on volunteers to carry out their mission as a way to keep administration costs low and inspire donors. However, managing volunteers can be time consuming,and challenging.It is also more realistic for some non-profits to do than others, based on the complexity of their programming. It is much easier to organize a large group of volunteers to plant trees than it is to deliver training on issues of equity and poverty.

Low administration costs

5. Drifting Missions: A huge criticism of non-profits, often tied to non-profits who are accused of ‘chasing funds’. This is where non-profits apply to and accept funding from organizations whose criteria is not fully aligned with the mission of the non-profit. With both funders and funding recipients having their own missions to fulfill, there can be disconnect between what is available and what is needed. This is an area which requires more open dialogue and transparency.

It is definitely the case that all sectors can be impacted by erroneous public opinion, and that some critiques of the non-profit sector are valid. However, I believe misguided criticisms are highly problematic for non-profits for two reasons:

1. Without understanding the complexities, realities and challenges of non-profits, the solutions and support offered by other sectors and individuals do not address the root of the problems and therefore do not truly lead to improved effectiveness and impact.

2. Criteria on what makes for an effective non-profit are often misleading, which means sometimes those non-profits with the greatest social impact are left behind in the competition for public, corporate and individual funding.

Clearly each of these topics can be further unpacked and I encourage individuals from all sectors to engage in conversations which further break-down these misconceptions and myths on non-profits.

Have you had any “aha” moments you would like to share, either as someone working in the non-profit sector or through your volunteer work with Endeavour?

Carissa MacLennan is employed in the human rights education sector, having worked both internationally and domestically for the past seven years in various management, governance, and volunteer roles. Through these experiences, Carissa has become passionate about empowering non-profits to maximize their social impact. She is a Spring/Summer 2011 Consultant with Endeavour and is now the Director of Training and Development with Endeavour.

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