The Indiscernible Nonprofit

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 25th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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As a sector, we are not:

  • thanked enough
  • appreciated enough
  • recognized enough.

Granted, none of us chooses to work in this sector because we are looking for thanks, appreciation or recognition.  But that doesn’t mean that we won’t accept any of it or be pleased to receive any of it.  But that is, without doubt, not our motivation.

Reading Sandra Day O’Connor’s public letter explaining her need to leave public life was yet another admonition from a long-serving public figure on the importance of appreciation of our democratic history, of putting the whole above self-interest and partisanship, of thinking of others before self.  (Something with which we in the nonprofit sector are all too familiar).

In her letter, she quoted what she apparently oft repeated to her sons:  “It is not enough to understand, you’ve got to do something.”  The other public figure who recently made a similar plea was the late Senator John McCain.  His wife, Cindy McCain, has picked up the charge in a video recently released by the McCain Institute.  In urging people to vote on November 6, McCain says, “The ideas that John spent his life fighting for weren’t just his, they are American values—and it’s time to fight for them again.”

Nonprofits “do something,” fight for something, every day of our existence.   Regardless of whether we like what a nonprofit stands for, all nonprofits are supporting American values, from valuing differences of opinions, to a free press, to the very cultural differences on which this country was built.  We don’t need to start fighting for them again because we never stopped fighting for them in the first place.

But, apparently, we do this from a position of invisibility, and this must stop.  Not that I need any reminders of just how invisible the nonprofit sector is, I asked a group of students the question that continues to amaze and disappoint me, despite the fact that I have been asking this question of students—both undergraduate and graduate students, which is:    in an average week, with how many nonprofits do you interact?  None was the answer I got.  What about where you are sitting right now—in the classroom of a nonprofit?  What about the religious service you attended within the week?  What about where you worked out or ran in a park?  What about the person who stopped you on the street to ask you to sign a petition or if you were registered to vote?  What about the thrift store you shopped in or the community arts center/museum/theatre/historic house?  And, then, as always, the questions start:  i did X; was that with a nonprofit?  The answer, always and invariably, is yes.

An assignment in the first class in the Masters in Nonprofit Leadership program helps students learn about the indiscernibility of nonprofits.  This class just ended, providing yet another unnecessary and unwanted reminder.  Over the duration of the eight-week class, students monitor a media outlet (or several) of their choice to assess the coverage of nonprofits compared to the coverage of for-profits.  Day after day, week after week, there are recurring stories about the ups and downs of for-profits:  new products, who is moving where, staff turnover, who is in conversation with whom for a possible merger, profiles of leaders, etc.  But students complain about the difficulty in finding stories about nonprofits, the paucity of coverage on anything having to do with the sector.  But when there is coverage, it is of one of two things:  a scandal or a filler, fluff, feel-good piece.

Odd, given that nonprofits have the exact same things that the media covers on for-profits:  new products (we just call them programs or services); new locations; staff changes; the possibility of mergers.  And yet that doesn’t get merit coverage.  The nonprofit sector is invisible until a member gets into trouble or the media outlet needs filler.

In apparent obscurity, we continue to do something, to fight for all American values, including  life (health care, disease prevention and treatment, providing for the basic elements of food, clothing and shelter, as examples), liberty (social justice, equal access, employment, again, as examples) and the pursuit of happiness (all that was just said, plus exposure to arts and culture from around the world, a clean and safe environment) ad infinitum.  So, pat yourselves on the back, give yourselves some thanks.  And then start working on the strategy for throwing off the invisibility cloak.




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.