The fundamental difference between working for a social impact organization and working at a for-profit business can lead to a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings around the nonprofit sector.
Sometimes people assume “nonprofit” means everyone is a volunteer. Much of the public has a very limited understanding of how operating costs—or overhead—allow organizations to better solve problems and serve communities. And far too many people think, after hearing a news story about a scam, that charitable organizations are all corrupt. For the people who devote their careers and their lives to social good, this only makes the job more challenging.
The truth is that nonprofits ultimately come down to people—people working together to solve a problem. To shed some light on these individuals, we dispel some of the damaging assumptions the public sometimes makes about nonprofit professionals.
1. They’re Less Competent Than Their For-Profit Peers
One of the dismissive assumptions people make is that nonprofit organizations, and by extension their staff, aren’t as competent and reputable as for-profit businesses. In fact, research by Jennifer Aaker at the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that consumers were “less willing to buy a product made by a nonprofit than a for‐profit because of their perception that the firm lacks competence.” The unspoken question people in the nonprofit sector often face is: If you were really good at what you do, wouldn’t you be succeeding and making more money in a for-profit organization?
As the countless experts, scientists, counselors, PhDs, and other nonprofit professionals will tell you, the social sector is fueled by highly intelligent, hard-working people with tons of experience. Furthermore, their nonprofit work often gives them firsthand experience with problems that others can only imagine. And since resources are often so tight in the social sector, employees wear many hats and develop a diverse range of skills.
This misconception is also influenced by the social sector’s need for volunteer service. Many people still hold the outdated view that volunteering is always simple work that anyone could do. In reality, a great deal of volunteer work is specialized and requires training and skill. After all, you can’t give medical aid with Doctors Without Borders if you have no medical training. What’s more, entry-level volunteer service frees up more skilled and knowledgeable staff to devote their time to their areas of expertise.
2. They’re Self-Absorbed Martyrs
Many people don’t just doubt the effectiveness of nonprofits, they also make negative assumptions about their intentions. One of the reasons there is so much scrutiny on overhead and supposedly overpaid nonprofit professionals is that people often don’t trust when someone does charitable, unselfish work. So they look for evidence that nonprofit professionals are really acting selfishly.
In Western societies, most people subscribe to the norm of self-interest—the idea that individuals always act in the way that is most profitable or beneficial to themselves. This is a heavily debated topic among sociologists and economists. If you see money as the only possible benefit or form of profit, though, real-world evidence has shown over and over again that people do not behave this way. If this were the case, no one would anonymously donate to charity. The truth is that material profit isn’t the only reason people do what they do. Even in our individualistic society, people often consider the consequences for others when making choices.
3. They’re Naïve Idealists
Nonprofits take on some of the toughest problems on earth. They work to eradicate catastrophic disasters and social problems that have prevailed for decades or even centuries. And there are a lot of people that think it’s naïve to believe anyone can truly solve them. They might assume that nonprofit professionals think good always wins in the end.
But the people who devote their lives to social causes are not naïve. If anything, they are more realistic. They see the problems they fight day in and day out. Many of them work in the field or serve people in desperate need. Nonprofit professionals do not lack knowledge. They simply haven’t let the knowledge deter them from trying to help.
This final “myth” does hold some truth, though. Many people who work in the nonprofit sector are idealistic. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an idealist is “one guided by ideals; especially one that places ideals before practical considerations.” Many people in the social sector do so because they are guided by ideals of equality, compassion, and justice, and they often make practical sacrifices in income and time for these ideals. It’s not that nonprofit professionals haven’t recognized reality, it’s that they have and they keep showing up.
Working in the nonprofit sector often means longer hours, lower pay, and higher standards for transparency and cooperation. And most people who pursue careers at these organizations are aware of these challenges. The people driving social change forward are skilled, talented, passionate, and resourceful. If people outside the social sector better understand nonprofit professionals, they may be more inclined and empowered to get involved.