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. 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). 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. 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”. 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, one by 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. 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. The first step toward 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. 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. 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.