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News - Oh, My!

June 29, 2020

Lack of Public Understanding for Nonprofit Sector Creating Consequences

Adapted from blog post by Vu Le, through his Nonprofit AF site

The public’s complete lack of awareness about how nonprofits operate has some serious consequences. Last week, we saw the public pile on the Minnesota Freedom Fund (MFF), a small non profit that saw an influx of $35M over the past three weeks and had been able to spend $200,000 so far. The comments on Twitter are scathing, sometimes ridiculous, with people expecting MFF to have a perfect plan within two weeks on what to do with 300 times the amount they normally get in one year. 

The uncalled-for backlash against MFF, however, is a case study of what happens to individual organizations when our entire sector sucks at communicating with the general public. We need to be deliberate about shaping the narrative about what we do. This includes:

1. Make general operating donations the default: Our decades of quantifying donations—“$50 will pay for meals for 10 kids for a week,” “$100 will provide five seniors with skateboards,” etc.—has conditioned people to think of nonprofit work the way they think of ordering things from a catalog. So, they get upset when what they “ordered” does not arrive perfectly packaged for their consumption. Let’s end our weird habit of inviting donors to restrict their donations. Every donation we solicit needs to be general operating, so nonprofits have the flexibility to use it as needed and it is ingrained in donors as the norm.  

2. Show what it takes to do the work well: Because no one wants to pay for things like office rent, utilities, websites, accounting, insurance, staffing, etc., we don’t talk about these things. But a reason they don’t want to pay for those things because we don’t talk about them and explain why they’re needed. And because we don’t talk about them, people have no clue what’s needed to do this work. They still think things just magically happen, like programs just run themselves and financial reports just generate themselves. In the case of MFF, people demand transparency on where all the funds have gone or are going, without stopping to think about who will be doing all that work, both the programmatic work and the work of accounting where money is being spent and communicating it out.

3. Get people to invest in long-term strategies: Not only do people expect things to arrive perfectly packaged for them to be able to understand and feel good about, but they want it immediately. And therefore, we always shape our messaging toward short-term outcomes. It then becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. We must move away from these short-term transactions into long-term partnerships. This includes a much more challenging way to communicate with donors. They need to understand that to do this work well, it will take lots of time.

4. Have people see an ecosystem, not a bunch of stand-alone organizations: Folks on Twitter ask why MFF doesn’t just give money to other bail funds in other cities. Well,that’s because that’s not how our sector currently works, and not how we’ve conditioned people to think. Let’s change that and get people to understand that all our missions are interrelated. MFF did encourage donors to give to other nonprofits, which was great, but how about all of our donation pages have something along the lines of “Your donations will be put to good use to further our mission. As appropriate, this includes sub-granting to other nonprofits aligned with the work we are doing.” Yes, we need to worry about power dynamics and other challenges that come with grantmaking among nonprofits, but the more of an ecosystems-minded approach we take to this work, the more effective we will be.

5. Push back on people’s ignorance instead of just navigating around it: One time a colleague told me how every year her local newspaper publishes and shames the 10 charities with the highest “overhead” rate. “I’m just terrified that we’ll get on that list at some point,” she said, “so we do everything we can to lower our ratio.” We are often too nice, so we don’t push back. Our collective lack of pushing back has allowed ignorance about our sector to go unchecked, which allows some ridiculous narratives to be built, and it affects us all. It is time to do some counter-narrative work. If something is ridiculous, call it out.

6. Shift people’s focus to the real issues: People are upset at one small nonprofit spending $200,000 out of $35,000,000 that they got in two weeks? Boy, will they just LOVE IT when they hear all about how foundations have been hoarding hundreds of BILLIONS for decades and decades, usually spending out a measly 5% or 6% of their endowments every year. Or how Donor-Advised Funds, again in the hundreds of billions total, have no legal mandate to spend out anything at all, despite donors already having taken tax breaks. The problem is, they don’t understand all that, because we don’t talk about it with the public, and because many of us within our sector barely understand these things. When the 5% payout rule is brought to the public’s attention, most people are enraged about it.

For too long our sector has stood like a mysterious entity that people think they understand. While we solve the many, many internal problems that plague our work, we also need to keep an eye out on the public’s perception of and narratives about our sector. This does mean rethinking many of our communication strategies and messages. Talk to your team about how your messaging may affect the entire sector and what you can do better.

For Vu Le’s complete article post from June 22, 2020, please click here.