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The Truth About Non-Profits

April 3, 2012

I’ve been chewing on this post for a while now, trying to figure out the best way to share my thoughts in a logical and succinct way. I wanted it to be clever and witty, with a hint of humor so I don’t come across as harsh. I’m having a hard time with this, because the fact of the matter is this:

Non-profits need your money.

When I say non-profits, I am focusing mainly on charities and ministries that exist to help people in need. This includes, but is not limited to, churches, rescue missions, homeless shelters, battered women shelters, crisis pregnancy centers, and much more. I’m also thinking mainly about small, community non-profits, and not those that are a household name all over the world. And a lot of wonderful non-profits exist who don’t support people in need, but I’m not talking about those today.

What prompted me to begin thinking about this boils down to the fact that I have known people my whole life who work for non-profits who feel as though they have to tiptoe around the subject of money. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to say something. And if you know me at all, once I spot a soapbox, I have a hard time ignoring it.

Walking on Eggshells

One of my least favorite things is listening to a radio station during their pledge drive. They go on and on about the importance of supporting them and their commercial-free programming. After a while, I just want to say “We get it! You need money! Now can you please play some music?” But I know why they’re doing it, and I even envy them. A lot of charities can’t be forthright and say “Hey, we need money to do our job and to help others.” They have to show you photos of children and women, and they have to show you a pie chart of where the money goes.

They need celebrities or other people not directly connected to them to do the asking so they don’t seem greedy. And they have to make you feel good about yourself so you’ll want to give them money to buy food or pay the electric bill or pay their staff. They have to feed you a meal and make you laugh at jokes, or watch a concert and then show a tear-inducing video of the work they’re doing. In other words, they have to make it about you, and marketing it to your needs, instead of the people they’re helping.

Where’s the Beef?

After they convince people to give them money, (more often before they’re given money) charities have to show their benefactors a nice, colorful pie chart. This pie chart shows them that X percentage of their money goes directly to the people they’re helping. If that number isn’t high enough, people will give to a non-profit that puts up billboards with celebrity spokespersons and messages that make everyone feel warm and snuggly inside.

But it’s not always about giving everything away.

Not every charity or non-profit is in the business of giving their whole budget away. A lot of them are about helping people in a way that makes them self-sufficient, and that doesn’t necessarily cost a lot up front.

Yes, is often starts with feeding someone, but the cost to feed, clothe, and teach their clients may be be small in comparison to salaries. Not because their employees are making bank, but because a lot of food and clothing is donated. Those things don’t fit neatly in a pie chart, but a lot of people aren’t willing to learn otherwise.

A Helping Hand

Building relationships with the community around them is a huge part of every non-profit. If your community doesn’t believe in what you’re doing, it’s hard to make it out of the gate. For a lot of people, though, getting involved means serving a meal or painting a room on a designated day that works for the volunteer. Which is great, if that’s what the non-profit needs. But at a certain point, everyone who comes to volunteer needs to ask themselves something. Are they doing this because they’re needed, or because it makes them feel warm and snuggly inside? It’s not always a bad thing if you’re just doing it for the good ju-jus. It is a bad thing if you go to them and say “I want to serve spaghetti and only spaghetti and I want you to do it on my timeline.”

If they tell you that serving spaghetti isn’t convenient, and you’re unwilling to do anything else, then you’re not doing anyone any favors. If the non-profit suggests something different (something even as revolutionary as giving them the money that would have been spent on spaghetti) and you refuse, then I have no sympathy for you whatsoever if you bemoan the fact that you “wanted to help, but they wouldn’t let me” or “they weren’t flexible enough.”

Here’s something to think about: The vast majority of the people in need are perfectly capable of serving themselves spaghetti. What they really need are people willing to invest their time and maybe even their money, and to do so without strings attached and without an agenda.

So the next time you’re thinking about helping at a local charity, ask yourself if you are serving because of what it does for them, or because it makes you feel good about yourself? And are you willing to help, even if it doesn’t give you any glory? Because the people non-profits are serving don’t need you to feel good about yourself. If you want to do something that is actually helpful, and at the same time you feel good about yourself, then that’s fantastic.

But stop kidding yourself.

Myths and Other Non-Sensicals

A lot of myths exist about non-profits and charities. To wrap things up, here are a few, in no particular order.

1. People working for a charity shouldn’t make very much money. (Why? Because they should need food stamps too so they know what they’re clients are going through? We’re not talking about paying them more than anyone else who has the same amount of responsibility, but come on. Let them live without fear of not being able to pay their rent.)

2. If they’re religious, shouldn’t God take care of them? (Yes, and God is going to take care of them by using you.)

3. All they care about is money. (From the sound of this blog post, you might think so. But it’s not true. They have to run their non-profit in a fiscally responsible manner and that often means handling finances like a for-profit business. And you can’t run a business without money.)

This is a subject near to heart and my interests. And it pains me to see so many people have false (and often self-centered) views on charities. They want to help, but only as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them. And that’s sad. The vast majority of non-profits want to help others, and that is hard to do when a community doesn’t stand behind them. I hope this post doesn’t seem mean-spirited or snarky, but I won’t apologize for the truth. And I hope you won’t mind me telling the truth.

For information about a great non-profit rescue mission in your area, check at AGRM and go to “Locate a Mission.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Schniff Schnaf Shalomie permalink
    April 3, 2012 5:57 pm

    Alright, Tiff! Good stuff, and I am in agreement. Yeah, I’m biased, since I work for a non-profit that is definitely feeling the pain (and we have TWO well-known names on our wall); but you have done a great job capturing where things are. So thanks for that.

    What I would encourage people to do is to get to know the non-profit you’re considering giving to. Volunteer a few times, see what they are all about. Get a feel for the staff, the “clients.” See first hand what your money could be doing (and likely, see the void that needs your money in order to get filled.) The bonus is volunteers are often far more valuable to us than money.

    That’s because for most non-profits, relationship is huge (just as you pointed out with the community aspect.) And in our changing economy, we deeply need people who will come alongside us (and believe in our vision) with their time, and, yes, money, because companies aren’t just giving money out like they used to. They want the breakdown of what their money will accomplish. As you rightly noted, sometime it’s hard to quantify impact in a chart or in a list of “outcomes”, because it’s not easy to measure some types of change.

    Alright, I’m done.

  2. Becky Svendsen permalink
    April 23, 2015 11:58 am

    I love that you’ve acknowledged that giving is really about relationships and recognizing our mutual brokenness. Let’s give in a way that preserves the dignity of the ones we hope to serve.

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