Time for CEO notes! I wanted to step away from some of the great science and engineering content we've been posting the last few weeks because the business side of running a nonprofit deserves attention, too! Full disclosure: This post was partially inspired by meeting a fellow executive at an event who told me, "I don't believe in nonprofits. No one should work for them." She contended that women (in particular) who work for nonprofits continue to succumb to the problem of working for less pay and having lower earning potential than their male partners.
As you can imagine, as a founder of a nonprofit, I raised an eyebrow at her comment. Still, I kept my cool and explained why Blueprint Earth is doing work that is vital. Her comment did give me food for thought, however. Who else might have similar perceptions about nonprofits, and what should we do about it?
For a start, I want to explain two things: 1) exactly who nonprofits impact, and 2) how you can help your friends who work in the not-for-profit sector.
Many of you reading this likely haven't met me yet, but you probably know someone who works for a nonprofit. Maybe you volunteer your own time in service to a local charity, or perhaps your best friend works for one. As you start to go through your mental checklist, you may find a few surprises about your connections to nonprofits.
By "nonprofit" I am referring to organizations that have received the U.S. federal government's 501(c)(3) designation. These organizations' missions vary widely—from religious, educational, charitable, scientific, literary, to the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, among others.
What unites all of these organizations? It is simply the fact that society doesn't invest the bulk of its money in them. To use a business term, the "Return on Investment," or ROI, is not always tangible. Of course there are exceptions, like universities that have lucrative football teams, or nonprofits with household name recognition, such as United Way or the Red Cross. It's very easy to hear about any nonprofit's work and assume that someone else will donate, volunteer, and spread the word.
The truth is, many people don't feel obligated to help a nonprofit unless the organization's particular issue has a direct impact on his or her life, such as a research organization for a medical condition that affects that person or a friend or family member.
This is where we need to broaden our thinking about nonprofits—understanding how they ultimately impact all of us. Back to that executive, I understand her desire to see women earning competitive and equitable wages, but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. That issue affects both nonprofit and for-profit organizations across the board, and should not be reason alone to dismiss nonprofits. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States as of 2014. Additionally, 1 in 4 Americans over the age of 16 volunteered with a nonprofit between 2010 and 2014. Odds are good that if you're reading this, you were one of them!
Nonprofits provide vital services to communities. For example, without nonprofits we wouldn't have emergency aid during disasters. We wouldn't have literacy advocates helping underserved children learn how to read. We wouldn't find homes for abandoned animals. We wouldn't have many needed services for marginalized groups, or veterans, or the mentally ill or homeless. We wouldn't have many of the innovations we have been able to witness in scientific research. And we've all seen how well the for-profit college model has worked out.
You get the picture.
No one would rise up to do this work if nonprofits didn't. Very few of these fields lend themselves to turning a profit. The goal of most for-profit companies is to earn money for their stakeholders. If you can show me an animal shelter that makes a profit, I will be shocked.
This is not to say that working at a nonprofit won't earn you a paycheck. Once a nonprofit's donor base is large enough, and it has been awarded a few grants, at least some of the staff usually receive pay. Many nonprofits are started with a major gift from someone who cares very deeply about an issue. This enables staff to be paid right from the start of the work. To use Blueprint Earth as an example, no one is yet earning any money. We have not yet established a large donor base or major donors or grants. Of course it is our sincere hope to reach that point, since we believe everyone deserves compensation for their work. Right now we have just enough money to cover most of our field expeditions, so that's directly where our funds go.
Are nonprofits a viable model? We believe that essential nonprofits are precisely that because their work brings value to the community as a whole. A nonprofit's work, such as our efforts at BE, has a ripple effect. There is something special about the work that we're doing. I left a 6-figure job at a global corporation to start Blueprint Earth, and I still don't earn a salary. Just like working at a startup for-profit, continually yanking the organization up by its bootstraps can be seriously tiring. I'm still at it over 2 years later because what we're doing really will change the world.
Stockpiling knowledge about our planet while teaching the next generation of explorers, discoverers, and inventors is not negotiable. We need to do this work. When I'm feeling down because I don't have funds to take more students to the desert, or because I have to hit up another group of scientists to help out for free, I remind myself of what's at stake here. If we do not blueprint our planet's environments now, very little that we're doing for our children, or our children's children will matter. Our planet is changing so rapidly that species that seem familiar to us now will exist only in storybooks in a few decades. Blueprint Earth's value to the community is obvious to me, and to our dedicated volunteer staff. We just need help taking that message to the world. We're even working with elementary schools now to make sure the next generation is ready to take on the challenge of blueprinting the planet.
So how can you make a difference by supporting a nonprofit? I'm sure you have seen friends' posts asking for donations to a charity where they work or volunteer, and maybe you've donated. Maybe not. But beyond the cause of the organization, you are also supporting your friend's work. Nonprofit work is daunting, difficult, and draining. Support from friends is what energizes me, and I'm sure it does the same for my fellow nonprofit champions. We all understand if you can't donate money, but there are other ways to show your support.
1. Tell everyone you can about your friend's nonprofit. Yes, I know it's not YOUR nonprofit. That doesn't matter. I can almost guarantee that your friend's nonprofit is making an impact on the life of someone you care about, and we nonprofit workers need you to be our fans. That support and momentum fuels our efforts and energy; the only way that smaller nonprofits ever gain any traction is when a large audience hears about them. We need YOU to be our megaphone. Word-of-mouth support has far-reaching impact, as evidenced by Internet funding platforms such as Kickstarter. Messages need to be repeated, so it helps to have as many people as possible continually spreading the word.
2. Volunteer something concrete. The most helpful thing anyone can do for someone else is to lend a hand. In a nonprofit context, this hand can come in the form of volunteering hours of your time, lending your expertise, or sharing your own personal network to help connect your friend's nonprofit to potential supporters. For example, don't tell me that I should just pay a marketing consultant to design my logo. Connect me with your artistic friend from high school and let me work something out with her. Suggestions are nice, but helping us solve problems is what makes a real difference.
3. Donate anything you can. When I say that any amount helps, I'm not joking in Blueprint Earth's case. Many nonprofits are not built on major grants. I was surprised to learn that when I was working on our fundraising strategy for this fiscal year. Only about 30 percent of a nonprofit's income is supposed to come from grants. The vast majority should come from individual donors, and that's something that grant-making organizations look at when deciding how to award money. If Blueprint Earth doesn't have enough unique donors, then it looks like no one supports us. That's why if your kid says he or she wants to donate tooth fairy money to BE, I'm going to accept it like you just handed me LeBron James' salary check. But let's say the tooth fairy hasn't visited you in a few years, but you do have an old, but functional, printer. Maybe you have a car you don't need, or some designer clothes you were going to toss out. Offer those items to your nonprofit friends!
Nonprofits benefit all of us in ways we don't always see or recognize, and you (yes, you) can make a difference right now. Without you, nonprofits have a lonely road to travel. We need you to keep us company along the way. In the end, you'll likely find that we're headed in the same direction.
Jess (and all of the volunteers of Team Blueprint Earth)