10 myths about working for nonprofits

by Ask a Manager on October 24, 2011

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As someone who has spent my whole career working for nonprofits, I’m used to hearing all the stereotypes and myths about the sector:  nonprofits are touchy-feely places without rigor, where you can’t care about money and you’re probably a hippie, blah blah blah.  There are of course nonprofits that fit this stereotype — but there are plenty that don’t, and in fact there’s a growing trend in the sector toward good management, accountability, and rigor around results.

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I take on 10 of the biggest myths about working in nonprofits. You can check it out here.


ES October 24, 2011 at 10:51 am

As someone who works in a non-profit, I agree 100% with all of your points.

Sabrina October 24, 2011 at 11:03 am

One I heard was that you can’t collect unemployment if you are laid off or fired from a non-profit.

Ask a Manager October 24, 2011 at 11:05 am

Weird. No, you definitely can. Payroll taxes all work the same way.

Christine October 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Yup, I can attest that this is a myth. Happened to me in 2008.

ThomasT October 24, 2011 at 1:48 pm

This may have been a gross misinterpretation of a nonprofit-specific provision in some unemployment compensation law. In PA at least, nonprofits can elect to self-insure for unemployment compensation, rather than paying through payroll taxes; this is most commonly done through a third-party company that then handles your claims. I’m not entirely clear on the details, but it may mean that claims are not paid by the state unemployment office. Which someone might interpret as being “unable to collect unemployment.”

Natalie October 24, 2011 at 2:35 pm

“Which someone might interpret as being ‘unable to collect unemployment.’”

Particularly if it means you apply through a different channel than the state DOL.

Christine October 24, 2011 at 1:24 pm

I’ve been looking forward to this article since you mentioned it on FB last week. Very well-written! If I may, I’d like to add one more:

I think one myth some people might have is that nonprofits don’t sell goods. One of my past jobs was at a human tissue bank that sold tissue forms to hospitals and had every appearance of a regular for-profit company (e.g. a full Customer Service department). It’s run as a nonprofit because making a profit off of human tissue is illegal, so, IIRC, the revenue went back into Research & Development.

KayDay October 24, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Even non-profit people often think that non-profit=non-profit. It really means (in it’s most basic interpretation) that “surplus revenue” must be reinvested in the organizations mission, not distributed to share holders.

Non-profit really equals mission driven use of revenue and public accountability.

ThomasT October 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Great list. Especially all the stuff about how many for-profit employers suck in the ways that nonprofits are all rumored to.

One minor quibble on #2. I think that, numerically speaking, it is probably the case that more nonprofits do not have paid staff than do, although the recent culling of the rolls by the IRS may have shifted that somewhat. They officially terminated the exempt status of a bunch of organizations that hadn’t filed 990s in three or more years – probably most them were defunct. But certainly the underlying concept – that nonprofits ARE an active and important employment sector was true. Here in Philly, the largest private employer is a nonprofit – the University of Pennsylvania.

Chris Walker October 24, 2011 at 8:17 pm

re #5 I’m the cranky (that is not so sunny) old guy who gets off on client success.

re # 6 Consensus…not so much.

re #8 Not

re #9 Mine cares about their employees but is also careful about exempt/non-exempt classification. I could work endlessly, but I am correctly classified as non-exempt. Others I know of could not withstand FLSA scrutiny.

re #10 That’s us (community service that is)

JT October 24, 2011 at 9:40 pm

The Chronicle of Philanthropy just reported on some of these issues, based on a survey by Professionals for Nonprofits – http://philanthropy.com/article/Nonprofit-Employers-Don-t/129519/
“[T]he survey suggested that no matter how much employees may appreciate some of the perks of nonprofit life, they do not rate them as essential as issues like pay and trust.”

Anon October 25, 2011 at 3:42 pm

More myths that need answers.

Nonprofit work is less stable than most jobs.

You won’t get hired unless you believe in their cause.

There’s no money for things like professional development.

Non profits make you go to social or political functions that support their cause.

Lack of funding is always used as a crutch to say no.

DBDC October 25, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Love the list. Having worked in non-profits for 11 years, I’m amazed at the misconceptions even my close friends still have. Such as, “If you work at a non-profit you will never get a raise.”

One that I do quibble a little with is the myth about non-profits being mostly volunteer run. In my field, I’d say 80% of the local efforts are completely volunteer run and funded. And religious institutions are classified as non-profits, and rely heavily on volunteer labor and fundraising. Overall, there is a ton of volunteer support. At the national level though, there are thousands and thousands of dedicated salaried staff.

And that bit about non-profits being all warm and fuzzy all the time? I invite you to retroactively sit in on the meeting I had when I was laid off 30 days ago. Would rival the coldness rumored to happen in any Fortune 500 company. My boss ignored me for the duration of my time at the non-profit, and tweaked my job description so he could re-advertise it for someone who will accept less pay. I found it when I was searching the job ads. So warm and fuzzy of him.

Joe November 2, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I, too, work for a non-profit, and love this list. I think that #3 is one that is a tricky one; people assume that because we’re in it for the kids, we shouldn’t care what we get paid, but that’s very clearly not true. Yes, I could make a lot more money if I worked for an investment bank than for a non-profit, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t value the money I’m making, or want to make a good living.

The one thing on this list that I sort of take issue with is #4. I’m sure this can vary depending on the organization, but for me, the fact that everyone in our office is passionate about our mission is a big part of what makes us successful. It really helps to defuse a lot of political situations, competition between teams and indivisuals, and generally promotes a healthy work environment. If a problem comes up and you need someone’s help, they’re more willing to give up some of their time to help because they know that they’re still contributing to the overall success of the mission. And so on. This is not to say that it’s a perfect environment, and nobody ever argues or has conflicting interests or prioritizes their own tasks over someone else’s, but it definitely feels better on these fronts than any other place I’ve ever worked. I’m very glad that my org factors in dedication to the mission into our hiring practices.

Non Profit Professional September 9, 2012 at 9:10 pm

I think you make some really good observations here. I work in the non profit world in Seattle, Washington. The largest weaknesses I have observed in a general resistance to integrating current efforts with proper technologies that would increase the efficiency and effective application of available, and restricted, financial and human resources. The method that most aplty describes what I have observed is what could be referred to as a ‘seat of your pants’ approach, that responds to crisis as they surface and fails to proactively plan for issues in an effective and thus sophisticated manner. Training is largely inappropriate for the work, and the candidates recruited are often ill prepared for the responsiblities faced. Metrics and data to better grasp the situation is avoided so that, and as a consequence, transparency is unavailable. Damage control, as a post hoc methodology, is emphasized over proactive strategic planing that is based on an honest and courageous evaluation of the challenges faced. As a result, the processes, policies, systems, and structures in place that are supposed to be supporting employee efforts, in teh pursuit of service quality, are inadequate and derailing.

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