Without Data We Get Mythology by Dan Gould

YNPN Board of Directors Speak!

If you are a regular reader of our blog or work at a nonprofit, some of the information in this post won’t surprise you.  In the last few weeks, when I’ve given presentations to individuals considering a career in the sector, several “nonprofit myths” have reluctantly been exposed.

Thanks to Guidestar, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips that works “to revolutionize philanthropy.” However, the predominant reporting structure for nonprofits is the IRS Form 990 which, at best, shows an annual snapshot of the impact of an organization, compared to quarterly reports produced by for-profits.  Robert Egger, the founder of DC Central Kitchen, is now advocating for organizations to elevate their data collection and reporting (read his article about the Power of Pooling).

Many of the myths I reference below come from general assumptions, potentially based on bad data, perpetuated by career advisers, parents, universities, and most importantly from the way data is collected about the sector:

  • Working at a nonprofit is just like volunteering, except I get a paycheck.
    Though the nonprofit sector relies highly on its volunteers to accomplish missions,  volunteer and staff positions have as much in common as a carousel and a roller coaster.  Skills demonstrated as a volunteer may help you get in the door, but your accountability and production expectations increase when you become staff.
  • There are no opportunities for upward mobility.
    If you’re employed at a small nonprofit (69.1% of the nation’s nonprofits have less than 100k in assets), opportunities  to expand beyond your current role can be limited. However, if you’re developing your leadership skill set (check out this post), you should be able to leverage relationships to take advantage of opportunities at other organizations.
  • You can’t make a living wage out of nonprofit work
    Are you going to get a 50k bonus on top of your salary if your nonprofit has a banner quarter? No. Will you be able to find salaries based on benchmarking data and market value that will be somewhat comparable to for-profit counterparts? Yes.
  • All nonprofits are the same
    Though 501(c)3 organizations file similar paperwork, have a board of directors, and engage in mission driven work, the sector is incredibly diverse.  Don’t believe me? Enjoy some light reading from the Donor’s Forum about the force of the nonprofit sector in Illinois alone.
  • Nonprofits mean direct service
    Nonprofits are businesses. Just like their corporate counterparts they need support in finance, human resources, marketing, public relations, operations management, policy, legal services, and more. While some organizations engage in direct service, not everyone is a social worker.

For a sector that makes up approximately 10.1% of our nation’s workforce, we often lump all nonprofits together.  Don’t make that mistake.  Hopefully these resources will demonstrate that there are opportunities to build a successful career in the sector, doing work that matters to you and the communities you serve!

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