Why I’m Leaving the Nonprofit World
Over the past decade, after working as a leader at an array of nonprofits, I’m leaving. I’ve come to realize that there may be better ways to make a difference than to keep working for the archaic nonprofit world, which is in desperate need of disruption.
To be fair, my perspective comes from experience at nonprofits that serve people of color, which seem particularly prone to the mind-set of scarcity that pervades much of the nonprofit world. Organizations like mine fought for bread crumbs and often saw one another as competitors rather than allies in the fight for racial justice and equity, due to a lack of sustainable funding from mainstream institutions.
This mind-set of scarcity — taking for granted that you will never have enough resources and reflexively skimping on staff, programs, training, and so much more — has led to some of the most disappointing experiences of my professional career, including breaches of board members’ fiduciary duties, conflicts of interest, and the inability of founding directors to let go of their “baby” organizations.
Of course, not all my time in nonprofits was negative. The work was deeply inspiring and pushed me to think of new possibilities as I and some incredibly talented colleagues dreamed of a better world, where justice was attainable, no one felt the sting of discrimination, and all were treated with dignity. Only nonprofit employees may know the silent camaraderie of dreaming, breathing, and living for a vision and working — harder than you’ve ever worked — to carry out that vision with extremely limited resources.
Nonprofit work has also given me the most humbling reminders of our shared humanity. The clients we served were some of the most eloquent and dignified people I have ever met, often reminding me that, with a different stroke of fate, I could have been in their position. It was a privilege to use my skills and resources to try to make a difference in their lives.
As I get ready to leave, here’s what I hope people who run nonprofits — and those who fund them — will do to change their organizations. And I will bet if they ask their employees, they’ll find a lot of agreement.
Run a nonprofit like a business.
Some nonprofit bosses and donors see nonprofit work as an act of charity, assuming that those who work in these organizations can afford the below-market compensation rates and would never make it in the for-profit world.
This thinking needs to change. To be sure, we don’t use return on investment to measure results. But let’s think about a ‘“return on impact” instead.
When nonprofits are run properly, their “profit” is not fatter margins or a return on investment but a social impact or a “return on impact.” And to have the greatest impact, nonprofits must make investments just as any business would. These investments, whether in staff, infrastructure, or tools, are what drive long-term returns. Ultimately, clients are the nonprofit’s customers, board members and donors are the investors — and the organization’s return on impact should be measurable.
And just as businesses need markets for their products, nonprofits need to be sure their clients want their services and there are sufficient donors to fund the “product” the nonprofit is providing.
Admittedly, not all nonprofit work can be sifted through a product-market fit analysis: Systemic issues and implicit biases could affect the market for certain nonprofits, or a nonprofit may be providing a critical service, cloaked in stigma, to a hard-to-reach target. For example, some people are afraid to seek out services for mental-health assistance or services designed to reach those who immigrated to the United States as young Dreamers.
But nonprofits can benefit from an honest assessment about their “market” that shows how to evolve for the long run, especially amid declining funding, the proliferating number of organizations, and a reluctance among organizations to merge, or even collaborate, to remain sustainable.
Understand the colonial roots of philanthropy.
Leaders of nonprofits need to understand the colonial roots of philanthropy and nonprofits to ensure we are not perpetuating exploitive practices. After all, some of the greatest philanthropists, earned their money in ways that were often harmful to their workers and to society at large. In the same way, we need to be vigilant for potential blind spots of systemic racism and privilege embedded in our approach to funding and running nonprofits. Otherwise, nonprofits may be promoting racism or systemic inequality, perpetuating the oppression of the very communities we claim to be helping.
For instance, consider that less than 10 percent of nonprofit leaders — but more than 60 percent of those served by nonprofits -are people of color. There is clearly a lack of representation within the nonprofit world, whose half-hearted attempts to address the issue have been called out as tokenism by communities of color.
These blind spots are even more pronounced at nonprofits that serve people of color, where the reins are being handed to a new generation. At organizations that serve Asian Americans, for example, many nonprofits were modeled after mainstream institutions and may have unknowingly perpetuated patriarchy and paternalism, buying into the white-male-savior complex instead of challenging and dismantling it. Indeed, many Los Angeles-based Asian American nonprofits were founded by first-generation trailblazers who have struggled to make their organizations sustainable and to ensure a smooth leadership succession.
In my decade at nonprofits, I saw time and again an overarching fear that donors and money would be lost should certain relationships not be protected — often at the cost of an employee’s reputation or integrity. That is why many nonprofits don’t achieve the impact their missions demand and why employees burn out.
Remember that the nonprofits hold the expertise, not the donors.
Too many nonprofit leaders make do with the tiny sums donors send their way, often with restrictions that make it impossible to do well by employees or the mission. Instead, leaders need to demonstrate through their actions that those of us working at nonprofits — not the grant makers or the donors — are the community experts. We are the ones who know what it will take to deliver programs and services well and to get that return on impact; we are the ones who know best how to serve our communities.
Once we embrace the idea that we are the ones with the knowledge, the possibilities and opportunities unfold. What once seemed impossible can become possible, and organizations that once seemed like competitors can become strategic allies toward a common goal. For example, before the coronavirus outbreak made in-person gatherings out of the question, local Jewish and LGBTQ leaders joined forces to plan an inclusion seder to show what we all have in comnon and then they reached out to local Asian American, African American, indigenous, and Latinx leaders
It’s time for all of us to ask questions when we see a board member, donor, or colleague who doesn’t believe the nonprofit is the organization with the expertise and the one that should be in the driver’s seat. If you believe we only deserve to operate on limited resources, rather than seeing all that is possible, it might be time to leave.
Like many other spheres of American society, the nonprofit industry badly needs innovation — particularly in an age of digital marketing, social-media influencers, and rapid technological change.
I am ending my nonprofit career because I am tired of fighting a culture of mediocrity, a legacy of colonialism, and the reigning mind-set of scarcity. I know the clients and communities we serve deserve much more, and with the growth of social enterprises and grassroots movements for social change, I am no longer certain that nonprofit organizations are the best or only way to serve and empower these communities.
I hope, though, that new generations of community leaders and donors will find a way to help nonprofits stay relevant, healthy, and sustainable for generations. After all, we need everybody fighting to solve the problems facing our communities and our planet.
Sylvia Kim is a human-rights lawyer and former nonprofit executive who is now working in venture capital to promote technology for good.
Originally published at https://www.philanthropy.com on March 18, 2020.