The nonprofit inferiority complex is not sexy


Dog-and-KittenLast week, I wrote an open letter to people from the business world telling them to stop thinking they are better than us nonprofit folks. That resonated with a lot of people from our sector: “Yeah, business people, just because you have decent dental insurance and can go to Chipotle as often as you like does not mean you’re better than us!”

But today, we need to address an equally serious problem with our sector, and that is our own sense of inferiority, which, unlike the overt superiority of many of our friends from the corporate sector, is usually unconscious. Still, it is pervasive across the sector, and combined with the martyr complex, it is debilitating. These things lead to burn out and prevent people from wanting to enter our field.

A huge problem lies with our society. We have a culture that does not understand or appreciate nonprofits. It has led to ridiculous things like the focus on overhead, and people getting their underoos in a bunch when nonprofit staff make a decent salary. We are expected to be like monks and take vows of poverty when we enter the profession. And like certain monks we are expected to wander the streets, begging for alms so we can do our work. 

Meanwhile, our society equates money with value. Let’s face it, our community defines a significant portion of our life’s success by how awesome our houses and cars and vacations are. We know this is crap, but it’s also reality. Trapped in this system, bombarded with materialism, constantly having to ask for money from much wealthier people who have awesome houses and cars, and left unprotected by the same sweet personal disposition that drew us to this profession in the first place, we start to unconsciously compare ourselves with others and internalize society’s messages. We start to think that our place is to be underdogs. We start to believe, unconsciously, that we’re not as smart or as talented or as good-looking as people who have more money.

Last week we discussed for-profit people who say nonprofits should run like businesses. But I encounter nonprofit people who say that as well. It’s alarming. Another thing that has been annoying me is when foundations and major NPOs hire people from other sectors into high-level leadership position: “Bob has had 26 years leading an underwater welding company. He now brings his experience to end homelessness.” In a way, it’s kind of nice that people in other fields would want to do our work. There’s plenty of work to do, and many of them end up doing a good job. But it makes me wonder: Did we not find a good candidate among the dozens of nonprofit leaders who must have applied? And why are people in our field not questioning this? Imagine the outcry from the business community if the reverse happened: “Microsoft is proud to announce our next CEO, Anna, who comes to us with over 25 years of experience leading a successful youth development nonprofit.” (That would actually be pretty awesome).

I think we have adopted an inferiority complex. It is built into our unconscious, which means it is hard to pinpoint and shake. But we need to identify it and deal with it and get over it so we can focus on the work. Our work is essential, and it is complex enough without us all second-guessing our own worth and abilities. Here is some stuff we need to do:

  • Work toward competitive salaries for ourselves and our staff (See “All right, you guys, we need to talk about nonprofit salaries”). If society places great value on money, then low salaries send a signal that we don’t think our profession is as valuable. I agree we shouldn’t tie our self-worth to our salaries, but I think the psychological and even existential effect of low pay on our sector’s self-esteem has been more damaging than we know.
  • Break out of the scrappiness cycle (See “Nonprofits, we must break out of the scrappiness cycle.”) Being severely frugal means we’re not investing enough in our nonprofits’ long-term growth and impact. (Psst: get a better chair if yours sucks; you deserve it)
  • Give feedback to funders. This may be difficult to do because of power dynamics. But it may also be because deep down we don’t feel like we merit the right to share our own opinions.
  • Give feedback to policy makers. Many of them think we’re wusses because we don’t speak up enough and we often don’t sound all that assertive when we do speak about our work. We need to channel the feistiness that comes with the realization that our work is important and urgent. Because it is.
  • Be a little more boastful when talking to people outside the sector. We say humble stuff like, “I work for a small nonprofit.” How about, “I work for a nonprofit that helps hundreds of kids each year become successful in school, what-what?” (The “what-what” part is optional)
  • When relevant, stop worshipping the corporate sector by hiring people with business backgrounds over people with nonprofit backgrounds to do social justice work.
  • Take time to recognize and celebrate the kick-ass stuff we do to make the world better every day. The work is so pressing that we forget to pat ourselves on the back once a while. 
  • Stop referring to ourselves as “professional beggers” and disparaging our field in other ways. We have to have a good sense of humor about our work, but we also need to stop doing the things that reinforce stereotypes of our sector. We ourselves have started to believe these steretypes, which makes them harder to change.
  • Stop slouching! The work we do is awesome.

We cannot expect society to change if we continually reinforce its ridiculous perceptions. Lately I’ve noticed that our sector’s self-image has started to resemble our delicious and ubiquitous snack of choice. Hummus. It’s cheap. It’s soft. It’s slightly nutty. And a little bit sour. We should be more like that olive tapenade: strong, firm, classy. As much as we should not compare ourselves with the business world, there are things we can still learn. The for-profit sector has a healthy ego—oftentimes too healthy. Having a healthy ego is the one area where we may want to imitate the business sector.


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  • bill holston

    Great reminder. I have actually said, ‘I work for a small non profit.’ Next time I am asked, I’ll say, I have the privilege of providing free legal services to people seeing refuge from violence in the United States.

    • Hildie Lipson

      I recognize myself in this too. I often say, “I work for a small nonprofit.”. I am changing my response as well. Thanks Vu for once again putting up a mirror to our nonprofit selves.

      • Thanks Bill and Hildie. Yup, we need to be a little more boastful.

  • “I am fortunate to work w/ people who are passionate about solving problems in communities through the voices of nonprofits.” How’s that? Thanks for the reminder that how we frame what we spend our time doing is itself an advocacy tool. Yay!

    • Thanks, Jennifer. That sounds great. We should all say these messages until we and the rest of society get them.

  • Marc Levin

    This is right on the money. (pardon the pun). Corporate executives also commit more white collar crime and rarely suffer any personal consequences. They claim (and many nonprofits believe them), that they are more economically efficient and better managers, but forget their role in the economic disaster of 2008-09 and have overhead rates that dwarf most small nonprofits. I also get annoyed when I hear that corporations’ profit motives and commitments to shareholders make them more creative. Maybe that is true when it comes to raising capital, but when it comes to developing solutions to complex social problems, nonprofits have them beat, with the possible exception of technology development. And even that case it is usually the nonprofit sector that applies tech advances to the greater social good.

    • Thanks, Marc, for the sobering reminder that for-profits are not the best model for us lowly nonprofits to follow. We rock.

  • Laura Goodwin

    So glad for part I and part II of this conversation – lovely to read what I say to myself too often! As my own part III: I love that the media turns to cover the philanthropy sector at this time of year – …where are you the other 11 months? harrumph – but am so often infuriated at the shoddy, ill-considered coverage. We owe it to ourselves to stand up to that too. Latest offender in my mind: Slate’s Money podcast of this week, The Philanthropy Edition. Got some things right about some foundations, but so much wrong with a broad brush.

    • Laura, this is a great topic and very important. You’re right, the media often suck at depicting nonprofits. Crappy articles that encourage people to look up nonprofits on charity watchdog organizations, for example. Urgh…

  • Lorraine Thomas

    A couple weeks ago I attended a conference with a bunch of non-profit folks and I was delighted when I got to the registration table to see that everyone was dressed “professionally” (and attractively). I think I was afraid everyone except me would be wearing old jeans and Birkenstocks. It’s just wardrobe, I know, but the message was “Hey, we’re a bunch of awesome and sexy nonprofit people and we take ourselves and our mission seriously”.

    • verucaamish

      That’s pretty problematic. So people obviously don’t take their work seriously if they dressed casually? It wouldn’t be because they don’t want to create barriers between themselves and the youth/low-income folks/etc who that work with?

      • Lorraine Thomas

        Nope. Not saying that. You should see how I dress when I’m in the office by myself. But there is such a thing as representing when the situation calls for it.

        • I agree with y’alls both. Although my default for everything is a nice button-down shirt tucked into non-holey jeans.

  • Keys to Change, LLC

    Yes! Of course if we were more like for profits we’d have things like

    Inadequate leaders (who remembers the Wall Street meltdown)

    Products that no one wants (Pontiac Aztec, anyone? Or how about Concur? ) or that kill people (pretty much all car manufacturers but not only them)

    Tons of meaningless jargon let’s think outside the box and take the 10,000 foot view on this)

    Wasting millions of dollars on consultant who make big promises and don’t deliver

    Yes, I agree with you if you’re saying some of this can be found in the nonprofit sector too. And there are good businesses. I try to buy stuff from them. Neither prefix, non- for for- makes one type of organization better than the other. And yet our dominant culture definitely values the for profit sector more.

    • Thanks, KtC. I agree. At the 10,000 foot level, we are just doing different stuff, both important.

  • Pax Bennett

    I think people are a little tired of me saying how amazing my organization is. Talk it up, people! What ever you’re doing, it comes from an amazing place inside you.

    Listen to Vu, unicorns!

    • Pax, thanks for the great positive message. We should all own the kick-ass stuff we’re doing.

  • Stephen Birch

    Vu, I agree with the majority of what you are saying. I have dabbled in the non-profit world for 16 years before dedicating my full-time effort over the past nine. Prior to that “I was one of those”. However, I think the overgeneralization of business leaders having no knowledge of our world is just as myopic. Many serve on boards and contribute daily to the organizations making a difference. Holding advanced degrees in business subjects, I think the general axiom is true. When was the last time you were in a non-profit board meeting and the CEO told you that based on metrices run that we will be applying the Kotter change model to this problem? Right….never. There is something to be said for applying business practices to non-profit processes. After all, the customer is simply not paying for our services, but they are still our customers.

    And as a parting gift, I will tell you my biggest pet pieve about non-profits. We are all competing for the same donor dollar, so a little consolidation in the industry would be healthy for all. Instead we have Debbie Do-Good starting yet another chairty that does the EXACT same thing as 40 others. Please tell me we could not benefit from some self-regulated business best practices?? We better start, or someone else will force it on us!