10 myths about working for nonprofits

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.

Here are the 10 biggest myths about nonprofit work, debunked.

1. Myth: Nonprofits are laid back, less professional, and less rigorous.

Fact: There are certainly nonprofits that fit this stereotype, but there are for-profit businesses that do too!  Many nonprofits are fast-paced, demanding, and disciplined; in fact, there’s a growing movement in that direction.

2. Myth: Nonprofits are mainly staffed by volunteers.

Fact: Most nonprofits are staffed by paid professional staff. Some organizations also employ volunteers in addition to their paid staff, but many don’t use volunteer help at all, preferring instead the accountability of paid full-timers.

3. Myth: Caring about money is frowned upon.

Fact: It’s the organization itself that isn’t making a profit, not the employees. It’s understood that employees in any sector care about their own salaries. And while nonprofits generally pay less than their for-profit counterparts, salaries in the sector vary widely, and smart nonprofits strive to pay competitive salaries and benefits so that they can hire strong talent.

4. Myth: Passion is an important qualification for a nonprofit job.

Fact: Passion is nice, but it’s not a must-have trait; skills, experience, and a track record of getting results are more important. While many nonprofit workers are passionate about their organization’s mission, you’ll also find workers who aren’t quite as evangelical but work where they do because it’s a strong professional fit.

5. Myth: Nonprofits are staffed by sunny, caring earth-mother types.

Fact: Many people at nonprofits are there because they want to make a difference in the world … but they’re still just as likely to have egos or difficult personalities as in any other sector. (Making an impact on the world does feel good though!)

6. Myth: Nonprofits are run by consensus and have non-hierarchical structures.

Fact: Most nonprofits have clear lines of authority and decision-makers, just like in for-profits. (And those that don’t generally don’t thrive.)

7. Myth: Nonprofits aren’t well-managed.

Fact: There are certainly plenty of poorly-managed nonprofits, just like there are plenty of poorly-managed for-profit businesses. Organizations in any sector that are founded by people with good intentions but no management expertise often suffer from fuzzy goals and ineffective management. But among nonprofits, there’s a growing trend toward accountability and efficiency.

8. Myth: Nonprofits will hire whoever they can find.

Fact: Many nonprofit jobs are extremely competitive, with hundreds of applicants per slot.

9. Myth: Nonprofit employees have better work-life balance.

Fact: There are some nonprofits that promote work-life balance for their employees, just like there are some for-profits that do. But there are also nonprofits where long hours are the norm – particularly since what’s at stake can be so important.

10. Myth: Nonprofit work is centered around service work in communities.

Fact: While youth centers and soup kitchens might be the first type of nonprofits that come to mind, there are also all kinds of others, such as advocacy groups, which work for social change; trade associations, which offer membership activities for a particular industry (from research and training to lobbying); and religious institutions, like churches and temples. And nonprofits hire people to do all the same jobs as for-profit businesses do: They need people to do the accounting, the web design, the management, editing, database work, lobbying – all the same jobs you’re used to seeing.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Sabrina*

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

    1. ThomasT*

      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.”

      1. Natalie*

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

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

  2. Christine*

    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.

    1. KayDay*

      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.

  3. ThomasT*

    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.

  4. Chris Walker*

    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)

  5. Anon*

    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.

  6. DBDC*

    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.

  7. Joe*

    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.

  8. Non Profit Professional*

    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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