Hey Nonprofits: Stop It

Alexander Justice Moore, Deputy Director of Development, DC Central Kitchen

I love the nonprofit sector. As my friend Robert Egger loves to point out, nonprofits comprise 10 percent of the U.S. economy and 10 percent of the American workforce. In a time when things are so bad for so many, America's nonprofits are starting, finally, to enter the conversation about how to get this country working again. Groups like DC Central Kitchen are investing in local economies, creating employment opportunities, and training our jobless neighbors to reenter the labor market.

Our contributions are undeniable. Before nonprofits can take our rightful seat at the table with public and for-profit sector players, however, we need to let go of some of the old mindsets and practices that have held us back for too long.

These are lessons that we at DCCK have learned the hard way and constantly check ourselves against. As the JobRaising Challenge comes to a close, it's time for nonprofits to embrace a little tough love, and collectively stop making the same mistakes that have kept us small, silent, and, all too often, ineffective.

First, stop trying to reinvent the wheel by yourself. Instead, see if you can add your wheel to a larger effort, building a five-axle tractor trailer of change. Every year, 40,000 new nonprofits file their papers with the IRS, thinking that their brilliant insight is just what the sector needs. Most of these visionaries haven't taken the time to see what's already being done.

Let's focus on partnerships that maximize our strengths and benefit more people, instead of further splitting an overcommitted pool of resources. Of course, we still need nonprofit entrepreneurs to step up and shake up our existing thinking when it grows stagnant. Improving the professional profile of nonprofits will help separate the creative wheat from the redundant chaff.

There's a reason every frat bro thinks he can open his own, totally sweet bar but doesn't try to start his own accounting firm. Most people assume running a bar is easier than running a budget report -- which is why far too many bars careen right from grand opening to grand closing. In the eyes of many, anyone with a heart can run a nonprofit. We need to start showing off our brains.

Stop using the label of 'nonprofit' to hide your organizational shortcomings. When a program sputters, or an important document gets lost, or a typo-ridden email goes out to 10,000 people, too many of us revert to saying "Well, we're doing our best, but we're just a nonprofit." That's a cop-out, and it demeans the efforts and expertise of everyone in our field. As Sean Connery said in The Rock, "Losers always whine about doing their best." Trying hard won't lead to triumph. When we fail, our clients and our communities suffer. When we expect more from ourselves and our peers, we will begin to exceed the expectations of those around us.

Stop begging for money. Guilt trips are, and should be, beneath us. We're dug in on the front lines of crises like unemployment, intergenerational poverty, failing schools, and a broken health care system that each have trillion-dollar price tags. You're going to fix them by pleading for people's pennies? If mission-driven nonprofits want to fight these plagues, we need to fight to win. Money is ammunition in these ongoing struggles, and we have every right to expect and even demand the types of investments that will lead to victory. Americans once bought war bonds to fight and defeat our enemies. It's time we stopped asking for spare change and started selling War on Poverty Bonds -- and transparently demonstrating the returns on those investments.

Stop apologizing for paying your staff. Nonprofits are job creators too. Our employees go shopping, buy homes, and cough up their share of payroll taxes, just as they would if they worked at for-profit firms. While outsiders may write them off as well-meaning but ineffective martyrs, many of our staffers are highly trained professionals carrying out difficult, dynamic projects with highly constrained budgets. Their work is as real and as impactful as any profit-making enterprise, if not more so, and they deserve to be compensated fairly. I'm not arguing for higher executive salaries, but for investing in and retaining the younger talent in this sector. Our venerable forebears left us with some big freaking problems, and we Millennials can't fix them if we're burned out, broke, and loaded with student loan debt.

And, in a time of economic hardship, mission-driven nonprofits are creating quality employment opportunities for people who would struggle to find work elsewhere. Groups like FareStart, Challenge, and the ever-badass DC Central Kitchen help marginalized members of our community get back on their feet in supportive workplace environments. Instead of relying on welfare programs or ending up in prison, these individuals can pay taxes, spend paychecks, and contribute to their communities. Shelling out for these staff members' salaries doesn't detract from our charitable mission. It is an inherent part of that mission.

Some very smart people have tried to ditch the term 'nonprofit' entirely and generally failed to come up with anything good to replace it. I won't even try. Instead, let's simply remind ourselves, our supporters, and our leaders that nonprofit does not, and should not, mean unprofessional, unproductive, or unpaid. When markets fail and government dithers, we are the women and men responsible for plunging into the fray and finding meaningful solutions. We're private sector innovators infused with public purpose. When we stop diminishing ourselves, we might actually start to fulfill our missions.

You can join us in shortening the line and empowering men and women to change their lives. Visit our Crowdrise page and make a contribution today. Your contribution helps us reach our goal of winning $150,000 from the Skoll Foundation. Tell your friends and spread the word.

Learn more about DC Central Kitchen. Visit our website at www.dccentralkitchen.org.