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  • Pat Libby

Why YOU (and everyone else) need nonprofits.

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Since last spring, I’ve been agonizing over the results of a survey conducted by the Lilly School at Indiana University which found that “only 5% of Americans think they’ve been helped by a nonprofit.”

My guess is that most Americans have NO idea what a nonprofit is even though they might work out at a Y, have kids enrolled in a youth sports league, attend religious services, get medical care at a nonprofit hospital (most hospitals are nonprofit), know someone who is enrolled at a nonprofit college (the vast majority of colleges including public universities are nonprofit), love a pet they adopted from a nonprofit, go to plays or concerts put on by a nonprofit (most arts organizations are nonprofits), or maybe in tough times, get help from an organization like the Red Cross or a food bank. You get the picture.

It’s almost hard to get through a week in America without being touched in some way by one or more nonprofits (which is very different than the situation in Europe where museums and other cultural institutions, universities, and hospitals are largely funded by the government which is why taxes are so much higher there).

This Grand Canyon-sized knowledge gap about nonprofits in America is particularly strange because so many people work in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits employ 10% of the U.S. workforce (this is true as well in San Diego, where I live). During the past 15 years, nonprofit employment nationally has grown 33 percent.

When people don’t know what a nonprofit is or does, they don’t respect the intricate nature of how nonprofits do the work they do.

As a search consultant, I receive a steady stream of resumes from applicants who want to serve as the CEO of a nonprofit. They believe they’re qualified because they have executive experience in the for-profit arena but show no evidence that they’ve ever sat on a nonprofit board, understand how to raise funds to finance the work, or had personal or volunteer experience with the work that is at the heart of the organization they supposedly want to serve. For these people, leading a nonprofit is simply another executive management gig when that’s far from the truth.

The knowledge gap concern for the general public is this: if people don’t realize what nonprofits are and what they do, they won’t recognize why their volunteer and cash contributions matter.

As a case in point, the Lilly School’s Giving USA research revealed that personal giving to charity in 2022 sank to an almost 30-year low! “Americans gave 1.7% of their personal disposable income to charity in 2022, the lowest level they had given since 1995.”

That’s a source of worry and perhaps a sign of looming trouble for the sector.

It’s important we’re not bystanders to this accident waiting to happen. Nonprofits should hoist a flag to celebrate their nonprofitness!

It doesn’t take much for staff and board members to identify themselves as working for a nonprofit, for organizations such as world-class symphonies and museums to remind the public that they’re nonprofit, for universities to remind folks that their mission is about education – not profit – and for every type of nonprofit organization out there to give a shout out to their special status.

America's nonprofits are a gift to this country. They support our fellow and fella citizens in sooooooo many ways!

Let’s be sure that everyone treasures the contributions nonprofits make by wearing our nonprofitness proudly.

If, like I do, you live in San Diego County, you can find out more about the dimensions of the sector here by reading the annual State of Nonprofits & Philanthropy report that was released earlier this month by the University of San Diego’s Nonprofit Institute.



Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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