We all grew up being told (and believing) certain “facts” that simply aren’t true.  Case in point: Eating carrots doesn’t actually improve your eyesight, going without a coat doesn’t guarantee you’ll catch a cold, and rolling your eyes doesn’t result in them “staying that way.” These false “facts” are silly, but harmless.   

But unlike these silly fallacies, I keep bumping into false nonprofit “facts” that are harming the sector and undermining the impact of organizations. 

Here are my top five: 

1. Nonprofits can’t recruit top talent.

(Closely associated: Pay should be below-market value) 

There is an underlying assumption that nonprofits can’t compete for top talent because salaries should be lower in the nonprofit sector.  Why do we keep accepting this – while also complaining about high turnover? Paying people less than they are worth, just because we can get away with it, doesn’t sit well with me. Every day I see top performers who opt to work for nonprofits that value their contributions, invest in them as leaders, and support their well-being. It can be done. We just have to decide it matters.  

2. Burnout just comes with the territory.

(Closely associated: nonprofit leaders must be martyrs) 

Nonprofit leaders regularly encounter heartbreaking stories, discouraging setbacks, and rapidly expanding need among those they serve. There is always more to be done, often with less than enough resources – a recipe for burnout. Research shows that half of those who work in the sector are not “able to sustain a long-term career without compromising their health, resilience, and security. But that doesn’t mean this is something to “just accept” – it means nonprofit organizations should invest more, not less, in their employees’ emotional and mental health. These are not “extra” expenses. They are mission critical.  

3. There is a slower pace and less innovation in the sector.

(Closely associated: “nonprofit leaders are more reactionary than strategic) 

The nonprofit sector often steps in to fill the gaps left by legislation, environmental changes/natural disasters, or other disruptions. That is reactionary by design. But, everywhere I look in the sector, I see leaders responding quickly with strategic, innovative solutions. 

4. We must have low overhead to be considered well-run. 

(Closely associated: it looks bad to spend dollars on professional development) 

This one just won’t die. Here’s the truth: a well-run nonprofit makes prudent investments in technology, program innovation … and people.  That means, a well-run organization should occasionally spend more on overhead, regardless of what it does to their ratios. There. I said it. 

5. Getting one or two good grants will mean we don’t have to raise funds 

(Closely associated: fund program first, operations and revenue teams get the leftovers) 

Nonprofits need operating revenue to fund things like ongoing program expenses, revenue expenses, and administrative/operating costs …and that kind of revenue is less likely to come from grants. Most grant funding is one-time capital and you can’t sustain an organization on that alone. Instead, every nonprofit should be intentional about building out their revenue capacity – a process we walk organizations through in our Fuel Series Workshops.  Nonprofit leaders consistently report 4 out of the top 5 challenges they face are around revenue, and there simply aren’t any shortcuts to addressing them.   

There are other false “facts” and other beliefs undermining the impact of nonprofit organizations, but these are my top 5 today. And, at RevJen, we’re working to disprove them and change some of these persistent narratives about our sector. In the coming weeks, I am going to dig into these harmful “facts” a bit deeper and what we can do to dismantle them.