Are the challenges facing nonprofits driving people away from the sector?

Photo credit: rvisoft, Shutterstock
Photo credit: rvisoft, Shutterstock

There has been a lot of talk lately about the organizational challenges of nonprofits, especially around the TED Talk of Dan Pallotta. Nate St. Pierre, a web marketer and consultant, cites Pallotta and adds his own voice to the discussion, in a blog post about why he will never work at a nonprofit organization:

Whenever I entertain the thought of joining up with a nonprofit, it takes about three seconds for my mind to come back with the biggest reason it’s never going to work (all my friends in the sector may want to cover their eyes for this part): most nonprofits are risk-averse, small-minded organizations, and always will be. I see this problem as being equal parts the organization itself and equal parts society’s view of what a nonprofit should be.

I literally cannot work in an environment that stays conservative and fears failure. My nature is to do creative, original things that have never been done before, and this naturally carries with it a high potential for failure. I’m not gonna lie, I fail a lot. I just do. But it’s all part of the game, and every time I fail, I learn something valuable from it and come back bigger, better and stronger. I also hit some home runs along the way, and over time I end up raising the bar for just about everyone. That’s how my skill set works.

If I were to bring this mentality and work style to a nonprofit, odds are I would quit or be fired within six months. Probably both. If you’re worried about creating goals that are easily identifiable and easily accomplished within a set of parameters, or worse, if you’re concerned with looking bad to the general public if you don’t do these things in a certain way, then I can’t work for you. Because I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen when I come up with something completely unorthodox and release it out into the wild. And what’s more, I don’t want to know what will happen. I want to see some beautiful chaos at first, and then out of that we can pull whatever gem might emerge. These two approaches don’t play nicely together, and it quickly becomes a bad fit for both sides.

As someone who is interested in how nonprofits leverage (or often, don’t leverage) new social media tools, I can see where St. Pierre is coming from. Luckily, not everyone is like that and we are seeing more nonprofits take risks.

What organizations do you see that are taking risks and working to enact change? What can we learn from them to affect the nonprofit sector overall?

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    • MacArthur Antigua
    • April 18, 2013

    For me, it all depends on the context of “taking risks.” Sure, I’ve come across nonprofits that are risk-averse, and that’s mainly because they’re hewing to the traditional funder-fundee power dynamic: “Gosh, only if we had enough money, then we could do these services, and then our community would be better.” If a nonprofit operates from that framework, then it’s already operating out of fear. I totally get why that would be a rough place to work in – and I don’t do censuses, so I don’t know if that’s the majority, supermajority or all of the nonprofit world.

    But, what if a nonprofit comes up with a compelling intervention or design that was co-created with local residents and/or those receiving the services? From that framework, there should be nothing to fear because drive to change is rooted in the community – and ideally those that supposed to “be served” are actually co-creators and not being consumers. Sure, in that case, it would be a shame if we couldn’t see that experiment or innovation play out.

    After reading his blogpost, I’m impressed with the dude’s healthy self-esteem. However, it reads to me as “Man, I’ve gotta be able to fail and fail often” – and this sector sucks cause it doesn’t allow that. And, sure, failure is key to learning – but at what point should we be accountable? Again, I’m not an apologist for the sector – I would love to see a more comprehensive approach to talent management, and an increase in diversity occupying decision making positions for example – but his blog post sure reads, “your sector cannot handle my swagger.”

    1. Sorry you took it that way (“your sector cannot handle my swagger”). That’s not the point of the article. I’ve spent 4 straight years working in the (unofficial) nonprofit sector for 30+ hours per week for absolutely zero pay. I’ve done a lot of good, I’ve put in my time, I know how stuff works, and I’m just saying that working in any capacity in the (official) nonprofit sector is not something I can see as a viable long-term career path.

  1. Kimberly, your article is dead on. I run a nonprofit in Washington, DC and am often outcast because I am not afraid to fail and I love being innovative. It’s in my bones. I am writing an article called “The Art and Science of Screwing Up” and I would love to interview you. If you have any interest please feel free to email me at I am also currently working on two awesome projects. The first is a global learning community for young social entrepreneurs who have very dynamic stories and the other is called SIT – social innovation and technology program.

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