The nonprofit sector is not more dysfunctional than any other sector, OK?

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone, if you follow my ramblings for the past few years, you know that I point out various flaws in our sector. We have a lot of them, from our ridiculous traditional board structure, to the various time-wasting shenanigans of foundations, to the way we’ve been conditioned to appeal to the ego of rich mostly white donors, to how poorly paid many people are, to our propensity to intellectualize and not take action, to our crappy hiring practices, and to our office equipment that is held together with duct tape and bungee cords. And there’s plenty of other things we need to point out and improve on.

However, although it is not always apparent, I really genuinely love our sector. And I criticize it because I see our potential and I am optimistic that we can change and improve. It’s a lot like visiting your relatives and they just point out your appearance and all the stuff you’re doing wrong, but you know that it’s because they believe in you. When mine are like “You’re getting old, why don’t you find a real job or open a business like your cousins, and also you should try putting this eucalyptus oil on your face for your horrible acne,” I know they say all that stuff because they care.

Which is why it’s annoying when I or others point out the weaknesses in our sector, and the responses from colleagues (both from nonprofit as well as from other sectors) go along the lines of “See, nonprofits are toxic as hell” or “there’s something about nonprofit management that’s just so dysfunctional” or “that’s why I left the sector to go into for-profits.” It’s expected when it’s people who don’t have any experience working in nonprofit looking down on and bizsplaining to us. But it hurts a bit when it’s us saying these things about ourselves.  

The nonprofit sector, with everything we need to fix about it, is not any more dysfunctional than other sectors. Every sector sucks in both common as well as unique ways:

Corporations: The vast majority of businesses fail with a few years, and 46% of those failures are due to incompetence. Many that succeed do it through exploiting workers, avoiding taxes, and destroying the environment. The reason so many nonprofits exist is because of how much of the world has been screwed up by so many corporations. And a major reason so many of our philosophies and practices are so dysfunctional is because we adapt stuff from the corporate world. Right now there are endless stories of people quitting terrible bosses and companies because they’re treated like crap.

Government: Designed to be run by white men, and this hasn’t changed much. Many colleagues who leave nonprofit to go work for the city or county talk about the great pay and benefits. But they lament the inefficiency and endless bureaucracy: “Please fill out these 18 forms so you can get a box of staples for your cubicle.” Plus, they have to respond to the changing tides of politics and the capricious whims of various elected officials, many of whom are incompetent or vindictive or both.    

Academia: I follow some academics on Twitter and the stories they tell are all chilling. Ph. D students being overworked and having severe mental health challenges. The rampant racism and sexism. Narcissistic advisors power tripping. A Squid Game around research and publications. Adjunct faculty being paid so poorly they are literally unable to afford food.

Media: Here’s a long list of things that need improving in the media. Tons of racism and sexism there too. It’s very white- and men-dominated, just like every other sector. Journalists are underpaid and overworked. And now many media companies are focused on getting clicks and making profit, which has led to sensationalism, both-siding, and misinformation, with terrible consequences.   

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.