The Nonprofit Inferiority Complex and Why We Need to Lose It Now

Here’s a thought exercise you can use to test yourself for the dreaded Nonprofit Inferiority Complex, the internalized idea that nonprofit work is inherently less valuable than other forms of wage labor. How do you feel about the following statements with respect to community-based nonprofits? 

1 = strongly disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = maybe; 4 = agree; 5 = strongly agree

  1. Because nonprofit organizations depend primarily on private donations and government funding rather than earned income, they shouldn’t pay their staff as much as for-profit businesses do, nor should their workers expect the same level of benefits and professional development support as in the private sector. 
  2. Nonprofits need to learn from and operate more like private businesses if they want to be successful in the long term.
  3. The focus of the sector needs to be on service, not public policy and advocacy. 
  4. Many nonprofit workers put in long hours for relatively low pay and minimal benefits. That’s not a systemic problem – it’s a sacrifice they chose to make in order to contribute to creating a fairer, more just society. 

Scoring guide:  

15-20: Time to Rethink – You’re undervaluing your work! Tax-exempt status is an acknowledgment that nonprofits play a valuable, indeed, a favored, role in society. It’s something to celebrate, not to apologize for. You are worthy! 

9-14: Growing Awareness – It’s always kind of bothered you to hear that “nonprofits should act more like businesses.” You’re sick of drinking that Kool Aid! You’re starting to realize that it’s really the other way around – businesses ought to behave more ethically, like nonprofits, and reaffirm the social compact.

4-8: You Get It – You thought you were the only one who felt this way. Now you’re going to speak out whenever you can and advocate for equity for nonprofit workers. You believe strongly that advocacy ought to be something every nonprofit does.

How did you do? Whatever your score, there’s never been a better time to reprogram ourselves and root out self-limiting thinking. 

As I write this post, the trajectory of COVID-19 in the U.S. is evolving. Naturally, we’re all focused on keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe, being responsible members of our communities, trying to maintain some semblance of normality. 

It’s hard to think very far ahead under these conditions. Nonprofits, especially the small groups that make up the bulk of the sector, are and will continue to be under a great deal of financial, even existential stress. And because many dedicated staff working for those organizations are underpaid and lack robust benefits, they will suffer disproportionately.

Regardless of how things play out, though, nonprofit leaders will have an opportunity over the next year or so to radically reshape the sector to more accurately reflect the critical role community-based organizations play in this country. 

The world will be different in a year, in ways we can’t predict. But we can influence that future if we are clear about our goals and united in our efforts. If we use this time of slowed-down activity well – recognizing and owning our status as essential, co-equal partners with government and business in American society and the primary locus of its core values – we will emerge from this crisis in a position to make an even stronger impact in advancing the causes of social and economic justice. 

But will we use the time well? We stand a much better chance if we can overcome the nonprofit inferiority complex that infects many of us.

America is an unabashedly capitalist society, with the benefits, excesses and inequities that system entails. The dominance of the private sector in all aspects of life in the U.S. has accelerated since the trickle-down economic policies of the 1980’s, when “Greed is Good” was legitimized as a credo. 

Many people now believe the corporate sector best represents what America stands for and that striving for personal wealth is appropriate as the main driver of our society. A corollary to that belief is that nonprofits are secondary players, defined by the IRS as “public charities.” As supplicants, this thinking goes, we should be content with the leftovers tossed down to us out of noblesse oblige by the private sector and its philanthropic intermediaries. But we don’t need to – and should not – accept this second-class label. It’s time to step up and assert our power on behalf of the communities we support.


Leave a Reply