P O S T E D B Y A L B E R T
Attend any earnest discussion of nonprofit issues and there’s frequently an elephant in the room. On the issue of how to attract and retain the best nonprofit talent, the room that houses all those elephants in the room is, in my view, the chronic and significant undercapitalization of nonprofit organizations.
“Undercapitalization” is a fancy way of saying that nonprofits are always madly scrambling for money. This undercapitalization leads to fundraising burnout (figuring prominently in both the Daring to Lead and Ready to Lead reports*), underinvestment of time and money in staff capacity, lack of attention to new staff, and an impoverished organizational infrastructure.
But chronic undercapitalization also exacerbates something I’ll call the nonprofit “frump factor.” That’s frump as in “frumpy.” Think Roz Chast doing a cartoon about a bake sale for the local 4-H Club.
A friend and I were watching a film about the making of Cloverfield, one of those big budget summer blockbusters featuring extraordinary special effects: thirty-storey monsters tearing off the head of the Statue of Liberty and hurling it down Broadway—that kind of thing. At one point my friend, a veteran of nonprofit work, turned to me and asked, “Why can’t our sector do anything as cool as that?”
His question gave me pause. You’ll have investors lining up to get a piece of the Cloverfield franchise, but few who’d expect to make a buck by housing the homeless. To my friend’s point: there is something yawn-inspiring about the way we describe our work and communicate its impact to would-be employees and other audiences. We invite the idea that nonprofits are pokey, unglamorous, 19th century places to work, mired in process and wed to outdated business models.
A widespread misunderstanding and undervaluation of the sector contributes to the nonprofit frump factor. We tell our parents we want to be environmental advocates, and they roar back, “What the hell kind of job is that?”
In this country, we’re not for-profit organizations; abroad, we’re not governmental. We’re the in-between sector, the neither-this-nor-that sector, the invention of IRS lawyers and policy wonks.
We’re the sector that does things nobody really wants to pay for.
In the Ready to Lead study, we saw significant “sector agnosticism,” the notion that a person could contribute to the public good in any sector. And I increasingly run into people who wish we’d save ourselves the embarrassment by simply dumping the term “nonprofit” altogether.
Yet I also remember what attracted me to the sector years ago, and what keeps me committed to it. I know that each day tens of thousands of nonprofit workers in my city are getting out of bed to do somebody an unambiguous good. I’m convinced—foolishly perhaps—that after great art and literature, nonprofits are the last remaining civilizing force, this function having been long ago been abandoned by government, business, and the media. I believe strongly that nonprofit work is the glue that keeps us bound together as a society. And I believe that nonprofits and the foundations that fund them are the last institutions capable of shaking a fist at government and business when a fist-shaking is called for.
We can do much more to make this work appear less frumpy. But we’d be challenged to make it any more meaningful.
* Full disclosure: I was one of the authors of the Ready to Lead report; my foundation funded and helped create both the Daring to Lead and Ready to Lead reports.