Alligators in the Boardroom and Urban Legends About Nonprofits

An influential but under-the-radar form of popular culture is the urban legend. Like the mythic alligators in the New York sewers or the man who woke up in an ice-filled bathtub without a kidney, nonprofits are the victims of urban myths and legends. Common assumptions -- just by being passed along through so many people -- gain a measure of credibility just by their frequent telling and longevity. This Board Cafe article may be useful for your fellow board members, your neighbors, and others.

Urban Myth #1: Nonprofits can't make a profit. Truth: In fact, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines do not say that nonprofits can't have profits, but they do clearly state that any profits can't be simply distributed to board members (as corporate profits are to shareholders). The IRS requires surpluses ("profits") to be reinvested in the organization's work. Such cash reserves -- built through surpluses -- are needed by nonprofits to even out their cash flows, to provide reserves for emergencies, and to pay for equipment, research, staff development, building renovations, and other necessary investments.

Urban Myth #2: Nonprofits can't charge for their services. Truth: In fact, many nonprofits exist solely or mostly on fees charged, such as nonprofit preschools that charge tuition or community choirs that sell tickets to their concerts.

Urban Myth #3: Nonprofits are poorly managed compared to businesses. Truth: Compared to which business? Compared to Lehman Brothers, Enron, Merrill Lynch, General Motors, WorldCom? In fact, nonprofits often achieve growth rates well above for-profit companies of comparable size, and they do so while undercapitalized and highly regulated and while maintaining the highest of ethical standards. But comparisons between nonprofits and for-profits often aren't very useful; they have different bottom lines, different measures of effectiveness, different resources, and different financial flows.

Urban Myth #4: Nonprofits can't lobby. Truth: Nonprofits cannot engage in any electoral activity -- they can't support or oppose candidates. However, they can support or oppose ballot measures (such as for public school bonds or against new immigration laws). In addition, nonprofits can encourage legislators to support or oppose various pieces of legislation -- as long as such lobbying activities are an "insubstantial" part of their activities. In fact, legislator education and lobbying may be centrally important for long-term impact. (For more information, see the web site of Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest:

Urban Myth #5: A nonprofit budget has to be balanced. Truth: Instead, in some years a nonprofit will want to budget for surpluses, in order to create a cash reserve or to save up for new equipment. In other years the same nonprofit might plan for a deficit, for example, because the rainy day has arrived, to do a one-time program with windfall money, or to invest in a new fundraising strategy. Over time, the financial goal of a for-profit is to maximize profits; in contrast, the financial goal of a nonprofit is to sustain sufficient working capital for program continuance and strategic choices.

Urban Myth #6: I don't benefit from nonprofits. Nonprofits help other people. Truth: each and every one of us benefits from nonprofits every day. We may have a daughter in Brownies or an aging father in a nonprofit nursing home. We may watch public television, take in a play, or take a walk in a restored natural habitat. We drive safer cars because nonprofits have developed and advocated for consumer safety legislation. We benefit from medical research at nonprofit research institutes, and from the cleaner air and water that have resulted from nonprofit advocacy. Nonprofits aren't about us helping them; nonprofits are the vehicle through which communities organize to help ourselves.

Urban Myth #7: Nonprofits don't contribute to the economy. Surprisingly, nonprofits generate 8 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States and employ one in every fourteen American workers. Nonprofits mobilize the efforts of an army: 61.2 million adults volunteering 12.9 billion hours each year toward community and public benefit: the equivalent of 7.6 million full-time staff. (Reference: Nonprofit Almanac 2008)

See also:

Comments (8)

  • I love how this encapsulates all the questions, remarks and other off-hand comments that I have to respond to when asked what I do. These short, concise statements are perfect for board members to read, understand and recite to others as well. Thanks!!!
    Melissa Gifford
    Four Points, Inc.
    LaFayette GA

    Jun 16, 2009
  • Thank you for this article! I'm delighted to see #4 addressed. We can and all need to advocate on behalf of the amazing work we do. We must be able to articulate to elected officials what nonprofits bring to a community. Please join us in our quest to do just that!
    Courtney Sieloff
    Campaign Director, V3 Campaign

    Jun 17, 2009
  • Folks,
    In addition to the information presented by the Nonprofit Almanac, readers might also want to check out the National Conference of Nonprofits website,, which has seven different reports on how the economic stimulus bills can help non-profits.
    Bill Huddleston
    Huddleston Consulting Group

    Jun 23, 2009
  • I have worked through the years for many non-profits and I am really glad to see these myths exposed. Especially the myth that non-profits do not contribute to the general welfare or to our economy. Russia has tried to change to a free enterprise economy without any knowledge of how important nonprofit contributions, contributions from volunteer organizations, and other often unacknowledged but very integral parts of our society are.
    I have rarely worked in the for-profit area with as many dedicated, gifted and professional people as I have in the non-profit area. In for-profit businesses, greed is sometimes the main goal and that is a worthless goal. It may bring success for a while but the success will, in the end, turn in on itself.
    Success, true success, in the non-profit world, demands a longer vision and a slower but surer solution to the problems that are being targeted.
    Thanks again for the article and the accurate slaying of the dragon myths.
    J. Westwood
    Elsinore, UT

    Aug 07, 2009
  • Anonymous

    Just found this article and love it. But I must point out that #4 does NOT apply to operating foundations and I believe private foundations at well. Operating foundations have an absolute prohibition against advocacy work and cannot speak to specific legislation.

    Jan 18, 2010
  • Anonymous

    This is a GREAT article! I've forwarded to several colleagues!

    Jun 09, 2010
  • More info for #4 - I found the fact sheet created by the Alliance for Justice about the 501(h) election to be very helpful when deciding how to proceed with our advocacy. The anonymous poster above should note that private foundations MAY support public charities that lobby so long as they don't grant money earmarked for lobbying use. Money from general support grants may be used for lobbying and advocacy. Project grants may be awarded to projects that include lobbying, so long as the award is only up to the amount of the non-lobbying portion of the project budget. Becoming educated about the 501(h) election should help a lot of NPOs and foundations alike feel more comfortable with lobbying and advocacy. Nicole Washington DC

    Jun 22, 2010
  • Anonymous

    BRAVO, JAN!!

    Jul 27, 2010

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