Making Things Better

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 8th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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A recent headline in Forbes caught my attention:  “Looking for Disruptive Nonprofit Opportunities?“  It went on to promise 15 disruptive options. I was all in:  15 different ways to shake things up.   

disruption text

My excitement was short lived, unfortunately, as I read suggestions such as:

-internalize the mission
-embrace your core values
-let go of underperforming projects-
-identify a current need you can fill.

Seriously?  The only suggestion that sounded remotely like it could truly be a disruptive opportunity was to get out of your comfort zone. Either some editor did a lousy job of writing that headline, or folks fail to understand what disruptive means.

The idea that internalizing a mission or embracing core values could be viewed as disruptive is simply anathema to the very essence of a being nonprofit. After all, isn’t a nonprofit’s mission the driver of what it does, and the core values the norms that guide that driving?  

Carrying these “disruptive” ideas with me, I taught class that evening. A  student asked me whether I thought the newly formed DEI committee at her organization was “worth it?”  The fact that this was an African American woman asking this loaded question was not lost on me. I found myself, once again, stepping onto my soapbox, explaining that her nonprofit, like so many others, would not need a DEI committee or special statement if it had been living its mission and core values on a daily basis, as every nonprofit should.  (Nothing disruptive about doing what you are supposed to do.)  

Over the past four decades, I have not worked with a nonprofit that didn’t have as one of its core values language that expressed something to the effect of the importance of being inclusive, of welcoming everyone, of not merely accepting but embracing people’s differences, all while acknowledging the benefits of being an inclusive organization and serving a diverse client base.  

If these were more than mere words, organizations would already be those diverse, inclusive and equitable organizations they now seem to aspire to be; no number of statements and committees will ever make that happen. Until we truly believe what we write and say and then act on those beliefs, we can pontificate all we want, but nothing will change.   

Based on the number of nonprofits scrambling right now, I guess I’m wrong and Forbes is right:  embracing and leaning into core values will be disruptive, as most people apparently think they are simply window treatments. 

I  think I may be disruptive by nature (and nurture, too). I take it into my work and my  teaching. It  seems to particularly come out in the class I  am currently teaching where, semester after semester, I get dismayed by how willing people who have worked in the sector for a good number of years are totally willing to view the for-profit sector as so different from our own, and always willing to forgive the for-profit sector for the same behavior it won’t forgive the nonprofit sector.  

A key example is CEO “excessive salaries.” Acceptance of unethical and harmful practices by the corporation in the production of goods/services as exhibited by the continued purchase of said goods and services is another. But let a nonprofit be accused of doing something it shouldn’t—like pay an ED a competitive  salary—and even folks from the  sector want to draw and quarter that organization.   

This time around, with disruption on my mind, I responded to students’ conversation differently.  I suggested that we change the description of the exchange between a donor—now called a buyer—and a nonprofit that now has a service to sell the buyer.  (This is something quite different from the service being provided to the nonprofit’s client, so don’t confuse the two.)   

These shifts in language cease the obfuscation that occurs when we refer to donors, investors or partners. By looking at the transaction between nonprofit and buyer differently from the transaction between for-profit and buyer, we encourage the public’s misunderstanding of what we are:  a business.  

As we obscure that understanding of nonprofits as businesses, we forsake the public’s  willingness—or ability—to let us run like a business. We must be allowed to control our expenses to enable the business to flourish, rather than be hamstrung by people’s quickness to damn us by judging our business practices rather than our impact.

So, let’s start using proper nomenclature. Our society understands the transactional model of exchanging money for a product or service and recognizes it as the cornerstone of capitalism. And Americans love capitalism. Thus, rather than try to play outside the game of capitalism, let’s play inside it. Every nonprofit has a service to sell; that service is making society better, whether it is through cleaning up the environment or providing education, exposing people to the arts and cultures of the world or helping those facing addiction, food insecurity, physical and/or mental health challenges, etc. 

Just as the field of medicine is diverse in the number of specialties and subspecialties, so too is the nonprofit sector. And just as every one of those medical specialties and subspecialties has the same goal as general medicine—healing people —so it is for the nonprofit sector.  

We may work one-on-one or across a neighborhood, a community, a state, a nation, or the world, but the service that each of us is selling to our buyer is always the same:  MTB, making things better for the whole. We can even give our buyers a piece of paper detailing how many shares of MTB they bought, and they can keep it in their files, safe deposit box, wall safe, whatever, just like stock certificates or the bill of sale for a fine work of  art, or the title to their house or car.  

Like with these other purchases, it may take time for the full value of these purchases to accrue, but they will always know what they bought and what they paid; they can pull it out whenever they want and take a look. They can smile at their smart choice and we may revel in our disruption.

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.