Nonprofit Work: 10 Myths

Myths about nonprofit organizations abound. Some people who consider a nonprofit job may hear such statements as:

  • "You've turned into a do-gooder."
  • "You've gone soft."
  • "You will decimate your savings account."
  • "If you want to work less, you should just retire."

In fact, these statements couldn't be further from the truth. Every day people come to work in the nonprofit sector because they have decided to do something bigger than themselves, to set in motion a turn of events that will solve a problem plaguing society, or to answer a call that they have felt inside of them for some time. Others come to the sector because they are looking for a more flexible schedule, because they have made their money and want to give back, or because they are looking for an entirely new challenge. Like the variety of people looking to join the nonprofit world, the sector itself is full of differences.

Here are 10 of the most common misperceptions about working in the nonprofit sector.

Myth #1: You Have to Starve to Work in the Nonprofit Sector
The fattest line on most nonprofits' budgets is payroll and benefits, and yet nonprofit organizations remain infamous for underpaying talent. There is no disputing the fact that nonprofits generally pay less than their for-profit counterparts for the same level of talent. However, nonprofit salaries are becoming more and more competitive.

Myth #2: Working in the Nonprofit Sector Will Deplete Your Retirement
Years ago, nonprofits were lucky to be able to pay the wages of the employees they wanted to hire. Nowadays, nonprofits know that in order to hire and retain excellent staff, they must be able to offer competitive benefits packages to their employees. Nonprofit employees have come to expect retirement contributions, relocation reimbursement, flexible work schedules, health and dental insurance, life and disability insurance, and generous vacation plans. Nonprofit work is steeped in non-monetary benefits as well. Studies have shown that nonprofit workers have a healthier morale than do those in the government or private sectors.

Myth #3: Making Money is Frowned Upon
If nonprofits pay living wages and decent benefits, then surely nonprofit employees must feel some guilt about earning money, right? Wrong! Money is not considered an evil in the nonprofit sector. In fact, nonprofits love money just like for-profits; it's just that they get the money as a reward for different achievements and from different sources than do for-profits. And nonprofits are increasingly adding revenue-generating projects to their portfolio of activities and expecting higher rates of return on investment of time, energy, money, and other resources.

Myth #4: All Nonprofit Employees are Saints
Not everyone in the nonprofit sector is a good-doing do-gooder. The same ladder climbing, social scheming, and personal ambition exist in the nonprofit sector as they do everywhere else in the world. Nonprofit-sector employees are like any other professionals -- focused on working toward a particular goal with both career advancement and competitive salaries in mind.

Myth #5: Nonprofits are Lucky to Employ Whoever They Can Find
Nonprofits have limited amounts of money for hiring and retaining staff, and poor hiring choices cost more money than hiring no one at all. Knowing this, nonprofits can be and are picky about whom they choose to employ.

Myth #6: Nonprofit Work is Not Challenging
Ask anyone in a nonprofit if their work is easy, and they will likely laugh at you -- and for good reason. Not only is the work difficult, many would argue that it is much more challenging than working in the for- profit sector. Employees in nonprofits are often asked to do more with less, and in shorter periods of time, while considering more opinions and keeping more people happy than are their for-profit counterparts. The results of this hard work are often intangible; it's difficult to get up every day and end world hunger or clean the planet's oceans. But that old Peace Corps slogan says it all: Working in the nonprofit sector just may be "the toughest job you'll ever love."

Myth #7: Nonprofits are Flat and Non-Hierarchical
Culture shock for sector switchers comes in many forms, from salary discrepancies to the perceived lack of modern technology. The biggest culture shock, however, comes for those expecting a direct line of authority as they experienced in the for-profit sector. While, many small nonprofits are flat organizations, where the intern has as much opportunity to voice opinions and affect change as the senior vice president, others are more traditional and hierarchical. As more Fortune 500 executives leave for the nonprofit sector, they are taking their expertise with them and molding their management practices to drive success in the nonprofit sector.

Myth #8: Nonprofit Jobs are Secure
Some nonprofits have been around for ages -- the United Way, Kiwanis International, and Girl Scouts, just to name a few. These community stalwarts are driven by volunteers and have likely been run by just a handful of leaders during their long existences. Most jobs in the nonprofit sector, though, can be insecure and depend highly on the whim of a funder or two. Just because an issue is well funded now doesn't mean it always will be.

Myth #9: Nonprofit Managers Know How to Manage
Nonprofits can't offer the same professional development as their for-profit competitors. This isn't to say that nonprofits don't care about their people. Most do, in fact, care deeply about their people; they just have odd ways of showing it. It's not typical in the nonprofit sector to focus much on management development, successor grooming, or skills training. Two main factors cause this. First, many nonprofit leaders are hired for their great vision rather than their experience in implementing internal systems and management. Second, nonprofit resources are constrained, and training often falls by the wayside. For both these reasons, nonprofit employees have to take an active role in their own professional development.

Myth #10: A Nonprofit is a Nonprofit is a Nonprofit
Nonprofits organizations are as different from one another as are for-profit companies. Just as you would never compare Xerox to your local neighborhood copy shop, you shouldn't assume that the Girl Scouts of America is the same as the Girl Scouts of Poughkeepsie or any other girls mentoring organization. Beyond the obvious differences of mission and focus, key differences to note in nonprofits include size, age, outlook, business model, and bylaws.

In conclusion...
Like most myths, the ones about the nonprofit sector are based more on prejudice than fact. The nonprofit sector of today hardly resembles the nonprofit sector of five, 10, or 15 years ago. In fact, it barely resembles the nonprofit sector of last year. With each passing day, the sector becomes more savvy and more competitive, and this only serves to benefit nonprofit professionals and job seekers.

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Laura Gassner Otting is the founder of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group and the author of Change Your Career: Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector, which was published by Kaplan in May 2007.