A Year of Challenging Nonprofit Myths

We might be hard pressed to find anyone who ever said that and meant it, but there are a number of misconceptions, assumptions and myths about nonprofit work. I have been with Mission Capital for a little over a year now, and in that time, I have been able to learn and re-learn so much from the incredible partners we work with. Prior to working at Mission Capital, it was easy for me to say I had an understanding of the nonprofit work happening in Central Texas. As an Austin native and policy student, I always felt relatively plugged into the Central Texas nonprofit sector. It wasn’t until I came to Mission Capital, and started working with our extraordinary partners, did I truly understand and appreciate the Central Texas nonprofit sector; the deep advocacy, training, and mental health work at Lifeworks, the data backed fearless truth-telling work at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the mental health and support services of Catholic Charities of Central Texas, the tireless pursuit of education and economic opportunity for all from organizations like E3 Alliance, Breakthrough Central Texas, Austin Area Urban League, Goodwill, American Youthworks, Workforce Solutions, and so many others. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Despite my sense of “nonprofit wokeness” coming into Mission Capital, I have been forced to challenge many of my own misconceptions and assumptions. Now, if you Google “nonprofit myths” or “nonprofit misconceptions,” you’re likely to find an abundance out there already. Rather than regurgitating what has already been said, I’d like to share a few key lessons I’ve learned or re-learned on my journey over the past year at Mission Capital. In the process, I hope to change your perspective, dispel some myths, and challenge your misconceptions about the Central Texas nonprofit sector.

“But you work at a nonprofit, how could you get burned out?”

npo1Working at a nonprofit is often seen as a cushier job than most others. I can proudly admit, that I wasn’t someone who had this misconception in full, but again, working in the space, I have learned just how false this assumption is. The social sector practitioners I’ve come across are working just as many weekdays and weekends as my private sector pals, and often times, (but not always) for less. The passion and mission-driven work that takes place in the social sector brings a sense of fulfillment for many of my colleagues that money does not. With that said, passion and mission can only go so far.

Nonprofit practitioners often burn themselves out because they are pressed with significant resource constraints, accountable to multiple stakeholders simultaneously, while trying to, in some cases, literally change and save lives of the most vulnerable people among us. Taking time for self-care is critical even here in the soft and fluffy nonprofit sector. Work-life (balance, fit, insert other buzzwords here) in the private sector has been a focus over recent decades and it is just as, if not more important in the nonprofit sector.

“But wait, if you’re a nonprofit that is making money, then aren’t you npo2missing the point?”

When it comes to the myths about nonprofits, most people have heard nonprofits are inefficient compared to the private companies. Many will say nonprofits should be more business-like.

My perspective coming into Mission Capital was a little different. I thought nonprofits were such a different animal that any focus on being business-like (read “making money”) was a complete disservice to what these organizations stood for. Sure, they should be efficient with their resources, but I saw making money as a detraction from being mission driven.

From working at Mission Capital, I’ve found myself now in the middle of that spectrum. As one of my Mission Capital colleagues says, “Nonprofit is just a tax status”. While nonprofits do not exist to make money, the only thing more important than the services they provide, is the long-term sustainability of those services and programs for those that need them. Making money is a way for nonprofits to grow their mission, scope, and serve more people in a sustainable way. Making money is okay.

“Not sure that organization would jibe with me personally.”

npo3Shamefully, I have done this. Sometimes, we think we know an organization because of what we’ve heard or read. “Oh, organization X is supported by so-and-so, they must be anti-(this thing I feel is important).” Or “Organization Y is a $15 million-dollar organization. How could they possibly use our money or need our help?”  In some cases, organizations might even have certain national or global affiliations that cause us to form certain opinions about them and their work locally.

I always try to not let my thoughts about an organization impact how I work with them. In one case, I had the honor of working with an organization I’d already made up my mind about because of certain affiliations they had. I was convinced before even meeting them, or knowing fully about their work, that this wasn’t going to be an ideal experience.

Within 10 minutes of being in the room with their leadership, I instantly felt like an idiot. The organization was great. Their staff was great. Their work was great. I was disappointed in myself for allowing my own misconceptions about this organization to feed my assumptions about the engagement.

Since then, I still do my research to know about the organization I’m working with, but I know to check my assumptions and misconceptions at the door. Just because an organization has resources and support, does not mean they are less deserving of your support to enhance their mission. Don’t let bias limit who you want to make an impact with in the nonprofit sector.  At the end of the day, there is not a shortage on demand for services, people, and our community need.

“Type A personalities and career driven people don’t work in the nonprofit sector.”

This one is a little less serious and more of a general observation. Fnpo4or about five years, I worked at a professional services firm filled with the personality types you’d expect in the private sector. I came to the nonprofit sector somewhat expecting that the people I would encounter would be these flowery, “save the world,” rose colored sunglasses personality types.

Within my first couple of months, I quickly found that could not be further from the truth! Nonprofit practitioners care about their mission and are passionate about their organization’s causes, sure. But don’t think for a minute that nonprofit practitioners aren’t ambitious and career driven. Being successful and seeking opportunities to grow and develop professionally are important to us like it is to our private sector colleagues. Nonprofit practitioners just might have different perspectives on what growth and development looks like in our sector.

“Working at a nonprofit means being prepared to suffer and be broke.”

200w_dNonprofit practitioners are often perceived as “silent sufferers” – people who have given up chances for higher paying careers to be social justice warriors and societal changemakers.

While it is certainly the case that many nonprofit professionals work under difficult circumstances, the inspiring, talented and brilliant professionals I’ve gotten to know wouldn’t characterize themselves as people who are being tortured by their mission-driven work.

Nonprofit practitioners in our community are incredibly inspiring people with passion for their work and a genuine determination to help change the lives of the people they are driven to help. They aren’t doing this work as some form of mortification. They are doing this work because they’re passionate, driven, and want to see their work make a difference. Just feeling sorry for nonprofit professionals isn’t supportive of the sector. Advocating for those organizations and their employees, as well as contributing your time, talent and/or treasure to the cause, will ultimately benefit the community as a whole.

Your turn!

I hope that my lessons learned shed some light on the misconceptions that surround our nonprofit sector. Now we want to hear from you! What are the common misconceptions you’ve heard or maybe had about working for a nonprofit? Any myths out there unique to the Central Texas nonprofit ecosystem? How do you respond to help others understand your mission-driven work? Join the conversation!

Member resources and discussions require a login to the online member community, an exclusive networking tool for Mission Capital Members. If you have any questions regarding access or are part of a member organization, but don’t yet have an account, please contact Chelsea Hartness at 512-477-5955 ext. 232.

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