Turning the Tables on Pride

This First Person Nonprofit article should probably be called a First Person Rant. We like this rant.

This happens to me all the time and probably to you, too: someone asks me, "So what do you do for a living?" And then I'm not sure what to say.

Sometimes I say, "I'm the CEO of a nonprofit" and other times I say, "I'm the CEO of an insurance company." They're both true because I work for an insurance company that is a nonprofit (and was created to serve nonprofits exclusively).

I am sorry to tell you that people sit up and pay attention when I say "insurance company" and pass me off when I say "nonprofit." Imagine: the insurance business has one of the worst reputations of all industries, and yet people respect the insurance part of my job more than the nonprofit side of my job! Why is that?!

I suspect there are more than a few misperceptions, but I also think it is because for-profit businesses are perceived as creating value in the world and nonprofit organizations are not.

Consider the CEO of Phillip Morris, which sold 850 billion cigarettes in 2008. Every year an estimated 1.7 billion pounds of butts (and the chemicals in them) wind up as litter worldwide, poisoning landfill, oceans, and marine animals. Not to mention the $200 billion per year in health and productivity costs and the 5 million deaths from smoking. Was the cost of the poisoned land and the health care and the deaths included in the cost of a cigarette? No! Phillip Morris' CEO made $32 million in 2008, but did he or Phillip Morris create value or destroy value?

We put far too cheap a price on cigarettes because we don't recognize the full costs. On the other hand, we put far too cheap a value on nonprofits because we don't recognize their full value. How do you put a price tag on the value of organizing thousands of volunteers to clean up the beaches, matching thousands of kids with mentors, each one with the opportunity to change the course of a life? Or consider the value created when millions of meals are delivered by volunteers to homebound seniors who would not otherwise have a visitor for months.

I want to make clear that this is not a discussion about nonprofits vs. for-profits. Instead it is about those in our world that are creating value vs. those who are either not creating or who are destroying value. A Here's another example:

Let's think about air for a minute. I think we can all agree that without fresh air, life as we know it is over (smile).A Given that reality, how could we possibly jeopardize something so precious? And, yet, we have done so for decades and we continue to do so.

What else is essential besides air?

Now let's replace the word "air" in the previous paragraph with the word "community." Like air, community belongs to everyone, and is owned by no one. As human beings, we need both air and communities to live and to thrive.

Not valuing the environment has led to global warming and may ultimately lead to disaster for the planet. In the same way, not properly valuing community has led to global unrest which has caused so much pain and may lead us ultimately to disaster.

The core of this is that everything we've been taught about this economy needs to be turned on its head. We have adopted the false belief that price and value are the same thing.

And, so how does this all relate to the nonprofit sector and how we value ourselves and our participation in it?

Not only the public in general, but we in the nonprofit sector look up with respect and interest to CEOs of companies that are using our community-owned environment to make trinkets for our amusement. A We even invite them to speak at our conferences. In contrast, we "only" operate nonprofit organizations. I plead with all of us to stop thinking this way.

We in the nonprofit sector -- as staff and volunteers -- are the creators of value. We are the keepers of community. We are the protectors of value with a capital "V".A Because we are working for the community -- a part of the world that no one owns -- it is assumed that our work somehow has less value than that of those CEOs.

We should celebrate our own nonprofit heroes rather than corporate bigwigs. We should be proud to say, "I work at a nonprofit that creates tremendous value for our community." And when we make the thousands of decisions we make every day, we should ask ourselves, "Am I adding value or subtracting value by this choice?"

Eleanor Roosevelt was right (again)

Which brings me to one of my favorite quotes,A one byA Eleanor Roosevelt: "No one can make you feel inferior without your permission." All of our organizations and movements started with a simple belief that something isn't right and that we have the power to change it.A No matter whether we are liberal or conservative, a person of faith or not, we are the people who say, we will make the changes in the world that need to be made.

In our environments and in our communities, we are running out of time to turn things around.A The first step towardA protecting our environment is to stop being duped into believing that the price we pay for our food, our fuel, and all of our consumer goods is the same as its value. Each time we fail to include the value destroyed (think clean air, clean water, fertile soil), we are taking from the future. In the same way, the first step toward protecting our communities is to recognize the true value of healthy communities to our survival and stop feeling that those who build community are in any way inferior.A To the contrary, community-builders need to feel their value in their gut, really feel it, really know it.

Anything whose price is less than its value will eventually be destroyed.A Before we can convince others of the value of what we do, we must know it ourselves.

I look forward to a healthy conversation about all this!

"Turning the Tables" is a painting by Diana Dean.

Pamela E. Davis is the Founder, President and CEO of the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group, which includes Nonprofits' Insurance Alliance of California (NIAC) and Alliance of Nonprofits for Insurance, Risk Retention Group (ANI). The Group insures and provides risk management services for nearly 18,000 tax-exempt nonprofits in 32 states and the District of Columbia. All companies in the group are 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofits.

Comments (12)

  • I couldn't agree with you more. Since the financial melt-down last year, I have been thinking about nonprofits as one of the better investments. While we cannot see the results of the investment (donation) as dollar amount on our quarterly statements, with a little research we discover the economic benefits to our community of the work of nonprofits: reduced prison recidivism through a re-entry program or increased employment from training programs. I think we need a national advertising campaign promoting our value! Thanks for your thoughts.

    Oct 15, 2009
  • Pamela --
    While you are "preachin' to the choir" here, perhaps the best thing we can take away from your extremely well-expressed editorial is a personal directive to DO SOMETHING. We can all add this "campaign" to our marketing efforts -- to do a little bragging, as it were, about the VALUE of our individual nonprofit efforts. I come from a marketing background and have been E.D. for FantastiKids, Inc. for 19 years. We have always touted the value of motivational entertainment and have made some notable inroads withing the educational community (there's that word again...community). But it IS an uphill battle. None of us can afford to assume others see the value in our work, especially when giving is down and budgets are stretched. LET'S ALL SHOUT A LITTLE LOUNDER ABOUT OUR VALUE.

    P.S. You are doing a GREAT JOB with NIAC (we enjoy the value!)

    Oct 15, 2009
  • Even within the non-profit field there is a hierarchy of what is considered interesting or valuable work. I used to work in delinquency prevention/juvenile justice and often got the, "oh, how interesting" response. I now run (built from the ground up) a $10 million/large staff/very high impact organization that works to improve early childhood education, and I get, "Isn't that nice" when I mention what I do.

    Oct 15, 2009
  • I agree with the intentions here, but it feels like an extremely simplistic analysis of capitalism to me. Using cigarette makers as examples of businesses is like using the worst nonprofit as an example of nonprofits.

    Oct 15, 2009
  • You make an important point and part of the problem with my argument is the space limitation of this article. In a recent speech I gave, I used many examples of companies--such as energy companies, hedge funds, manufacturers and others--that are making a few people rich by destroying value that belongs to all of us. Even the financial companies that create undue risk to our financial system by extreme leverage are causing us to put the wrong value on human capital and hence the wrong price on labor. My main point is that if we are not including the value of the clean air, clean water, and other natural resources in the cost of goods sold, we are allowing the companies to profit from the destruction of what belongs to all of us. In my view, the only way capitalism works well is if all companies return the natural resources they use to the state in which they found them. I realize that is a high standard that would result in a much different economy, but, our current one is not sustainable. Put more simply, we live in a gingerbread house and we are eating it.

    Oct 16, 2009
  • I don't agree with the anonymous comment above ("simplistic analysis of capitalism.). It isn't just that some corporations are as bad as cigarette makers -- it's the whole idea of taking into account total value added and subtracted, and that value can and should be measured in terms of communities and environment, not just what makes a company's balance sheet.

    Oct 16, 2009
  • Pamela & Other "Posters"

    These issues are so important.

    It would be interesting to create a marketing campaign that visually depicts questions of what is valued and valuable without judging or deciding.

    The Search Institute® has identified building blocks of healthy development— known as Developmental Assets®—that help young people grow up healthy, caring, and responsible. There are 40; 20 are internal, the other 20 are external assets such as the community values youth. (http://www.search-institute.org/developmental-assets/lists)

    A different project could examine the extent to which individual actions and business and government policies undermine or support/create these assets. For example, there's lots of research out there underscoring the value of families eating together, yet so many activities happen during the time this might "normally" happen. Policies could assist here.

    Oct 16, 2009
  • Interesting article, but it is more than a for-profit/non-profit dichtomy, it also breaks down by the type of nonprofit.
    Arts organizations vs social service.
    Social service charities vs. self-sufficiency.
    Organizations led by and for people of color vs. those that serve the "disadvantaged".
    Straight vs lgbtq.
    Art vs. social justice.
    We see this constantly in my organization because we combine art and social justice, which is typical of organizations that come from people of color communities. Also we are a queer women of color organization, and that generally causes people to say "huh"?
    So we are dismissed constantly, though we create tremendous value for queer women of color and the larger society because we bridge so many different communities. At this point, we'll just keep working hard and perhaps some folks will understand our VALUE to the world at large.

    Oct 16, 2009
  • I'd like to focus on the opening scenario which we've all had hundreds, if not thousands, of time. "What do you do?" is a polite conversation starter and by your answer you can determine where the conversation goes. As with any speaking opportunity, rule #1 is "know your audience." If it's a business occasion and I'm interested in finding clients, I respond with, "I work for X consulting firm where I do Y and Z for clients." And depending on how the conversation goes, I bring up my nonprofit work. If I'm in ANY other situation, I take the opportunity to talk up my nonprofit.

    However, I state it in a way that is more likely to prompt a follow-up and thus the opportunity to express the VALUE of that work. I'd NEVER say simply, "I run a nonprofit organization." If they're polite, they may ask its name or what it does, but they may already mentally moved on. I avoid saying, "I'm president of the Illinois Science Council" because they've probably not heard of it and the name is rather vague. When I do it right I say something like, "I help adults express their inner science secrets." THAT's the kind of thing that intrigues people and makes them ask for more information. Without being overbearing, I get the floor a little longer, get to pitch my organization's work, and get to turn the conversation back to the asker to learn what area of science they think is interesting.

    Play around with the words of your answer at a networking event and you'll be amazed at how different the reactions can be. It doesn't matter what your cause is or your position in the organization. A bookkeeper can respond to that question by saying, "I helped keep a drug addict from using dirty needles," or "I showed a child how to make watercolors." I highly recommend trying this. Others will see the VALUE in what you do when you express it in a way that shows them their connection to your work.
    Besides, anything is better than my old answer, a guaranteed conversation killer - "I'm a lawyer"

    Oct 23, 2009
  • I have built my 25 year career in serving nonprofit organizations and am now a consultant. I am PROUD to tell everyone that I am a nonprofit management consultant who works primarily in X states -- and I do not feel diminished at all.
    I have been in corporate and in the educational arena, and it was every bit as difficult because I did not "command a presence" nor was I kin/related to anyone who could give me instant credibility.
    My advice to you, my colleagues ... To be taken seriously, to change the mindset that reduces our value in the nonprofit sector, and to basically feel good about ourselves and all that we accomplish, speak up boldly and talk about your work in the most positive and emphatic way. An apologetic response, your body language, and your eye contact or lack thereof will reduce your value more than the kind of work you do or the industry you work in.

    Oct 27, 2009
  • I agree with Monica above: I don't just say I am a Resource Development Specialist for United Way. I follow it with: As such, I raise funds for 23 member agencies and other initiatives that improve the lives of our neighbors and friends.
    If they want to turn up their nose at that, move on to talk with someone else.
    Pat Reiser

    Nov 16, 2009
  • Anonymous

    What the author describes so well as "destroying value" is also called an "externality" in classic economic terms. Thus the Pennsylvania chicken farm is more profitable because it is not required to compensate the Maryland oysterman for polluting his oyster beds, to cite one classic example. When I talk to business people I like to explain that nonprofits develop human capital which enriches the whole community.

    We nonprofit folks have to be humble though...all the greatest community services can't fix a community if there is not enough commerce going on to provide decent jobs, and the income for people or companies to donate to our work. I think of it this way: good businesses are the bricks, and good government and nonprofits are the mortar that holds the bricks together, allows the bricks to function, fills the gaps in between, etc. I have worked in business, government and nonprofits. Today I build human capital by helping low income women get quality healthcare.

    Dec 27, 2010

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