Trust, Philanthropy, and That One "Office" I Had

My former “office,” a desk located in the entryway of two other offices. Since there was no other free space, every inch is covered in paperwork for a mailing.

My former “office,” a desk located in the entryway of two other offices. Since there was no other free space, every inch is covered in paperwork for a mailing.

There’s an ongoing discussion in the nonprofit world about our relationship to for-profit businesses - specifically if nonprofits should be run more like them. Throughout different parts of my career I have fallen on different sides of this argument, but today I think we’re asking the wrong people the wrong question.

Here are things that I wish nonprofits would allow themselves to do in the way that for-profits do: put real value in branding and marketing; invest in market research; experiment; pay generously; have comfortable offices.

But of course the problem isn’t as simple as “allow themselves to do.” Unlike for-profits, which by definition are in the business of making money that can be reinvested in the business of making more money, nonprofits are tied by the binds of cultural expectations and finite dollars. To be clear: there are not finite dollars in the world. There are, in fact, near-infinite dollars in the world. More than enough to solve many of our nation’s problems and make serious strides in the rest of the world. What there is, though, is a finite number of dollars that those with wealth will allow to be given to the nonprofit sector (and to taxes but that’s another conversation). And with those finite dollars come strings. Strings like caps on overhead and complicated reporting requirements and highly specific rules about how and when the money will be spent.

These strings are all based on an inherent bias against the nonprofit sector. I will once again reserve my larger rant about how racial and gender bias means that the world considers nonprofit work less-than for a later date (DON’T WORRY IT IS COMING), but in a nutshell, people don’t trust us with their money. Much like every other hierarchy, these strings were put in place as a way to control something outside of your control. Implicit in a cap on overhead spending is the idea that if it were not there, organizations would systematically misuse funds. This, of course, leads us to a whole other rant about the idea of “misuse,” since in this context it means “pay reasonable wages to the staff without which none of this work could be done in the first place” or “hire an admin to take on paperwork so staff can focus on their clients” or “give people good health insurance and not accidentally perpetuate the problem we are trying to solve.” In a theoretical attempt to ensure that funds are being spent to solve an environmental/political/healthcare/etc crisis, we’ve ended up with the snake eating it’s tail in an attempt at self-preservation. We burn out staff by insisting they work 60 hours in an office that’s actually an entryway to another office because we can’t pay any more on rent without going over the 10% overhead cap (hello, former office of mine!).

So rather than turning to the nonprofit world and asking ourselves how we become more like for-profits, I turn to the funders and ask us to invest in us the way they would invest in a for-profit. It’s true that in the nonprofit world the ROI is not cash. We alone will not make you richer. But we will make other lives easier, which will in turn allow them to make more money, which in turn will create an economic class that does not currently exist. And they will buy your products and visit your cities and invest back into their communities so you no longer have to. But in order to get there you (and by “you” I mean both funders and the world at large) have to trust us. Please. Trust us.