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9 Myths About Working in the Social-Impact Space

Alexis Perrotta profile image

Alexis Perrotta

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Many of us in the social-impact space have found ourselves in a situation where, when we're asked what we do for a living, we respond with something simple like, "I work at a nonprofit."

Oftentimes, as nonprofit professionals, we feel the need to talk about our work in the most basic way possible, especially in conversations with the uninitiated. Regardless of our role, years of experience, or issue area, the entire social-impact sector is often boiled down to one umbrella term—nonprofit—that comes complete with a whole list of assumptions. But the nonprofit sector is more diverse and dynamic than most people think!

If you're considering a switch from the private to the social-impact sector—or you're already working in the nonprofit space but having trouble explaining to friends and family what it really means to work at a nonprofit organization—read on for some helpful myth-busting explanations below.

Myth #1: No one makes any money

The truth: Most nonprofits rely on paid staff in addition to volunteers.

The term “nonprofit” does not mean that staff are not earning a salary. Instead, the designation simply refers to the 501(c) tax code in the United States. Nongovernmental organization, or NGO, and “charity” are the common terms used outside the US.

Revenue generated by nonprofit organizations goes back into programs that serve the organizations’ mission, which could include raises or bonuses for staff supporting the work. However, there are no stockholders receiving annual financial dividends.

Myth #2: The nonprofit sector is not for the business-minded

The truth: Nonprofit organizations are full of intelligent, educated, and passionate professionals, many with graduate degrees and/or years of experience in the sector.

Many people switch between the nonprofit, government, and private sectors during their careers. While each line of work presents its own set of challenges, there are many talented people in all three sectors.

Individuals employed in the private sector are sometimes surprised to learn how difficult it is to make the transition into the nonprofit sector, which has different (yet rigorous) standards of success.

Myth #3: Working for a nonprofit is not a career path

The truth: Working in the nonprofit sector can sometimes be seen as taking a break from the “real world” with the implied assumption that it is not an option to spend a lifetime doing this type of work. In reality, the nonprofit sector provides many people with a lifetime of exciting work as well as a challenging and rewarding career path. Nonprofits also tend to offer young people more leadership opportunities than other sectors.

Myth #4: Everyone is all smiles, all the time

The truth: Most people who work in the nonprofit sector generally do care about making the world a better place, but so do plenty of people that work in the private sector. Don't be surprised when you encounter difficult personalities, big egos, and office politics, which can exist in any professional environment.

Perhaps a higher percentage of kind-hearted people work in the nonprofit sector, but there is no way to measure this, and there are plenty of exceptions.

Myth #5: It's not competitive

The truth: In a world of limited resources, nonprofit organizations compete intensely for media attention, recognition, funding, and other resources.

In some cases, competition among organizations with similar missions may be detrimental to the pursuit of this shared mission, but it can also prove to be a healthy catalyst for creating and implementing innovative and effective programs. You'll find plenty of competition and collaboration in the space.

Myth #6: Nonprofit organizations are inefficient

The truth: Nonprofit organizations do not have clear bottom lines or profit margins; serving a human or environmental need makes success and efficiency more difficult to measure.

Add to that the reality of limited resources and an emphasis on serving clients (often at the cost of organizational maintenance), and it becomes clear why the sector is often perceived as inefficient.

Certainly, some organizations are inefficient and disorganized, just as we see plenty of dysfunctional private-sector businesses and government agencies. On the other hand, all it takes is some annual report or Form 990 research to see that plenty of organizations are in the black and doing it right. At the very least, there is a high level of legally required transparency that exists in the nonprofit sector making financial irresponsibility difficult to hide.

Myth #7: Nonprofits only do direct service work

The truth: The most visible nonprofits are often food pantries, mentoring programs, and other organizations that involve people working directly with those who need some form of in-person assistance. But many people who work for nonprofits are accountants, web developers, sales people, social media and communications experts, human resources professionals, managers, fundraisers, and executives. You'll also find plenty of researchers and advocates for certain issues supporting the work of direct service organizations.

Myth #8: All organizations support left-wing causes

The truth: The nonprofit sector itself does not have a political agenda, and many organizations exist to provide services and promote interests that the government does not. The organizations within the sector lean left, right, and everywhere in between.

Myth #9: It's just like volunteering

The truth: Many nonprofits rely on volunteers to support the work. Volunteers, however, are often shielded from the organizational, financial, and other challenges with which the actual employees of an organization must contend, to say nothing of the burnout issues faced by many who have spent more time working in the field. To be blunt, while oftentimes rewarding, full-time work in the social-impact sector isn't "just like volunteering" ... it's a job; and with that comes the good, the bad, and everything else.

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Alexis Perrotta profile image

Alexis Perrotta

As the Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at Idealist and a lifelong nonprofit professional, Alexis offers job seekers, game changers, and do gooders actionable tips, career resources, and social-impact advice.

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