At a young age people are incessantly asking you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Common answers include firefighter, news anchor, baker, or superhero. I was that strange atypical child as I always proclaimed that I wanted to be the manager of Subway. Fast forward to today, where as a soon-to-be graduate, I continue to be bombarded with the same question. However, now I can confidently say that I want to be a leader in the nonprofit sector.
During this year’s Minnesota nonprofit leadership conference, Leadership 2025: A road map for the next decade of nonprofit leadership, a plethora of leaders in the nonprofit sector joined together to begin discussing some of the major opportunities and barriers nonprofits face. While many of the speakers touched on meaningful topics, the keynote speaker in particular captured my attention with her confidence in equipping us with the knowledge to begin creating real change.
Dr. MayKao Hang, president and CEO of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, spoke on the trends and opportunities among nonprofit leaders from her unique perspective. She broke her keynote into addressing three main points:
- Prevalent myths of nonprofits
- How nonprofits should actually be perceived
- And upcoming trends that will alter how nonprofits operate
As someone who feels they are more informed about the nonprofit sector than most everyday people, I can’t help but continuously sense the constant ebbs and flows of the sector as a whole. The nonprofit landscape is ever-changing, immensely complex, and vastly diverse. But one thing’s for certain: nonprofit organizations have the capability to spark a revolution.
Four common myths of the nonprofit sector:
These four common myths are the result of years of misconception from the public eye. Nonprofit leaders must begin to question these assumptions about the nonprofit sector in order to wake up, act up, and promote solutions to address vital community issues.
Myth 1: “There are too many nonprofits”
Truth: Every nonprofit has unique capabilities while addressing unique populations with unique issues.
Myth 2: “Nonprofits are financially unsustainable”
Truth: Mission and money come together; with a strong focused mission being conveyed to your supporters in the right way, funding becomes sustainable. In the same sense that a well-designed and functional product will bring in revenue in a for-profit business, so does a well-delivered mission in a nonprofit organization. Make people believe what you do is valuable.
Myth 3: “Nonprofits are only short-term”
Truth: Nonprofits care for the short-term and long-term needs of the underrepresented. Just like a for-profit business cycle, nonprofits follow a similar path- some survive and expand while others go through recession and die out. Organizations such as University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Orchestra, or United Way have been creating a lasting impact for over 100 years.
Myth 4: “Nonprofits should act more like businesses”
Truth: In reality, nonprofits are at the center of where the market doesn’t really work. Dan Pallotta in his Ted Talk: The way we think about charity is dead wrong, says it like this, “Business always leaves behind that 10% or more that is most disadvantaged or unlucky. The nonprofit sector fosters philanthropy, and philanthropy is the market for love. It is the market for all those people for whom there is no other market coming. “
The real nonprofit identity:
Resulting from some of the predominant myths of the sector, misconstrued identities arise. Nonprofits can sometimes be seen as crutches, handouts, or feel-good entities, but here are five identities the nonprofit sector represents:
- Nonprofits are PIONEERS: They pave the way, develop strategies, and put ideas into actions
- Nonprofits are DISRUPTORS: They serve as advocators for the voiceless and powerless
- Nonprofits are OUTREACH SPECIALISTS: They know how to raise awareness and address gaps in services provided
- Nonprofits are an EXTENDED DEMOCRACY: They help bring mobilization to communities
- Nonprofits serve as our COMMUNITY CONSCIOUSNESS: They hold us accountable for what truly matters
Next 10 years in the nonprofit sector:
In an era of constant advancement and change, the nonprofit sector has to be careful not to remain stagnant. Instead, they must capitalize on various emerging trends in the next ten years.
- Organizations need to focus on how they are addressing the growing gap in equity (race, income, geography)
- Technology is going to continue becoming a disruptor and something that needs to be integrated instead of avoided in an organization’s business model
- Growth of cross-sector employment transitions will result in new viewpoints and more talent into the nonprofit sector pipeline
- Increase in the retirement rate therefore an increase in the opportunity for volunteers
- New types of organizations are arising, thedatabank being one of them! B Corps and social enterprises will begin redefining sectors
- Rise in the expectations to have reliable measurements of impact. This need will arise from funders, partnering organizations, and board of directors
The next 10 years provides nonprofits the opportunity to begin reshaping the way they increase their impact. Dr. MaryKao Hang urges us to reject complacency and use our knowledge as thought leaders to disrupt the status quo and improve our communities to achieve greater equity.
If leaders in the nonprofit sector are more aware of misconceptions, know how to plan for emerging trends, and can educate members of society on the real influence a nonprofit can have, then maybe when I start telling people that I go to business school for nonprofit management, they will stop responding with, “How are you going to sustain yourself in the nonprofit sector?” Maybe, just maybe.