The Toxic Perception of Nonprofits and the Training Remedy

January, 31 2023

Studies show that people believe nonprofits to be less competent than their for-profit counterparts. Where does this toxic perception stem from?

Nonprofits are under increased scrutiny after a Minnesota evaluation investigating the state’s funding following legislators’ concerns of oversight. In other words, Minnesota legislators are dubious of how nonprofits are using and managing the state’s tax-driven grants. This investigation is happening while a Florida nonprofit’s chief financial officer was just arrested for fraud, raising concerns that public funds could have been misused. Worse, the chief financial officer was hired despite already facing a civil suit for the same reason as her criminal charge.


These two cases, while they are disconnected at first, are representative of some peoples’ toxic perception of nonprofits.


The Importance of Perception

Most nonprofits live and die off the public’s perception of them. Cases like those above can have massive repercussions for the whole of the nonprofit community. In the case of Minnesota, some nonprofits get 50% of their budget from public funding; therefore, if the state’s funding dries up, so will the nonprofits.


The Florida nonprofit’s action of hiring a fraud shows a distinct lack of care or training (whichever comes first), inevitably leading to increased validation of the scrutiny for nonprofits’ funding. Typically actions of individuals should not be condemning of the whole organization—however—if the organization has no clearly defined guiderails, then those actions will have an implicit organization sponsorship.


How Do People Perceive Nonprofits

The underlying issue in both cases is a belief that nonprofits are more unprofessional than their for-profit counterparts. This isn’t the case, but anything that is funded by taxes (and not seen as a necessity) inherently leads to more questioning and much lower room for error.


Training helps curb the accusations of unprofessionalism. In the case of the Florida nonprofit, one of the biggest questions was about how it happened. How did something so seemingly obvious fly under the radar? The response, nothing.


Maybe it’s time for nonprofits to take a page from for-profits.


How Do For-Profits Respond?

Whenever a for-profit company comes under heat, for whatever issue, it is usually more scandalous. Again, typically most of the nonprofit’s funding comes from the public, so it is an easy target to attack, but, like with for-profits, these attacks could be lessen by a verifiable, comprehensive form of compliance training.


Imagine if the Florida nonprofit had—in-place or implemented—training specifically for their hiring process. Their response could have been something along the lines of “despite our best efforts to prevent hiring mistakes like this, someone on our team didn’t follow our hiring protocol.” Maybe not the best response, but still much better than nothing.


We see this type of response often from for-profit organizations with compliance training and for good reason: compliance training allows the organization to put the blame on the individual. This is because the organization has on record that the responsible individual has been told explicitly how they are expected to act.


How Are Nonprofits “Unprofessional”?

A study from Stanford reveals the common belief that nonprofits are perceived as more “unprofessional” than their for-profit counterparts. Training could help nullify this idea as it shows that strides are being made towards establishing expectations and progression.


While one cannot be 100% sure why nonprofits are perceived as more “unprofessional,” they are. Producing a progressively thinner and thinner tight rope for these organizations to walk on.


What Are the Reasons for the “Unprofessional” Belief?

While we might not know why an individual thinks that nonprofits are “unprofessional,” we can speculate on larger trends. One of these reasons could simply be jealously or knocking down from the high horse. We tend to be dubious of anyone claiming good intentions and while it is good to hold nonprofits accountable, this want to cut down is manifested in a nit-picky nature. Leading to far more watchful eyes on nonprofits because, hey, at least for-profits don’t claim to be the good guys.


Another reason is the “norm of self-interest,” or the belief that everyone, including organizations, ultimately must uphold themselves before all else. Therefore, people believe, if a nonprofit could meet it’s goals but it would dissolve in the process, it wouldn’t do it. This belief spurs people to think that a nonprofit will always put their organization before the community.


Finally, nonprofits are seen as kind but aloof. This stereotype is partly because of the norm of self-interest, the logic being that people who aren’t self-interested don’t know what’s good for them. This assumed not-knowing is then transplanted to other parts of the organization like operations and individuals.


How Does Training Effect These Beliefs?

While training will not and cannot be the be-all, end-all of these perceptions, it can begin to dissuade them.


Training can be formed to any task or accusation; therefore, it can be used as proof against most claims or perceptions as well. People believe your organization isn’t professional enough? Construct a training regimen that covers all the nonprofit’s procedures, goals, and values. But, while it could boost your own organization’s credibility, these beliefs may take a while to change.


The problem goes much deeper than just some similar beliefs held by a few people. Rather, the issue is far more cultural. As a culture, we tend to be dubious of people who claim to be good while at the same time, we have a strong sense of justice—making nonprofits the perfect target. Unmasking a supposed do-gooder organization as deeply corrupt is a cathartic experience (and one highly sought after). The perceived unprofessionalism is driven by more faith in the free market than public sector.


Training may only be a small steppingstone to correcting these beliefs but that small stepping could lead to the longevity of US nonprofits.


Get started with CoreAchieve today for free.



Photo by Ismael Paramo on Unsplash


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