Back to School

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 7th, 2012 in Thoughts & Commentary

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It’s that time of year:  back to school for most colleges and universities and school districts around the country.  I was among them, starting my 31st year of teaching.

What I teach now—nonprofits—is not what I taught when I started—criminology.  And no, there isn’t a link, the former a logical path to the latter, though, I must say, increasingly there does appear to be a larger commonality than I would like.

No crime this week, just nonprofit management, operations and governance, taught as part of La Salle’s  MBA program.  One of the 17 students admitted to working for a nonprofit; another, who naming the hospital for which he works went on to identify it as “theoretically a nonprofit.”  Another, who works for the City of Philadelphia, was surprised to learn that he didn’t work for a nonprofit.

Without boring you with the details of our first night of discussion, I walked away, as I do after a first night of class, dismayed by how little people know about nonprofits:  what they are, why they exist, how they operate, what motivates them, their relationships with the rest of the world, etc.   The myths and misperceptions continue to abound, undisturbed, and the misdeeds of a few large and/or well-publicized organizations taint—and tank—the entire rest of the sector, as Americans love to make generalizations and rely on stereotyping more than they love to actually do the work that thinking requires.

And so for the academic year 2012-2013, I have an assignment for America’s nonprofit sector.  It is time for you to actually live up to one of the myths and truly be altruistic.  It is time for nonprofit employees, board members and other volunteers to take on the responsibility of educating Americans about more than just your nonprofit and include educating Americans about the sector.  And, without debating the question of whether there really is such a thing as “true altruism,” doing so brings the potential of benefit to your organization.

For example, if you are talking about your organization to a newbie, it does not harm you to mention the context in which you exist—one of almost 1.6 million registered nonprofits in the country (or chose your state or county).  In so doing, you are educating the listener to the scope of our sector.  You could narrow it down to the number of organizations in your mission area and use that as basis for demonstrating your superior track record, providing yet more context.

It wouldn’t hurt to add that, like the vast majority of nonprofits, your organization adheres to robust financial practices to make sure that money is well protected—and stewarded—in order to best meet the mission promises of your organization, thereby countering the message they took away from yesterday’s headline about the local (or national) nonprofit employee who embezzled organizational funds for personal use.

You could remind people that you—and as every other organization given nonprofit status by the IRS should —are truly working on behalf of some portion of the public good in order to make the communities in which we live and work better, healthier, safer, enriched, etc.  While there, you might even want to give a few examples of nonprofits doing complimentary work to your own and help people to see the value and variety of the contributions nonprofits make.  You might, depending upon your own income ratio, let people know that the number one source of a nonprofit’s income is earned, contrary to the negative picture too many like to draw of nonprofits being whiney and “on the dole.”

In other words, it wouldn’t hurt—and, in fact, could help enormously–if nonprofits were a little more charitable towards their fellow nonprofits.  Try it.  That’s the assignment.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.