William and Mary Law School

The Non-profit Paradox

I've never worked for a non-profit before. I've performed a fair bit of free labor for the government in various capacities, and of course I've worked for for-profit companies, but non-profit? Nope. NGO? Nada. So interning with the Women's Rights Center in Warsaw has definitely been an excellent learning experience, a glimpse into non-profit life.

First off, CPK (the abbreviation of the Polish-language name of the Women's Rights Center) is exclusively devoted to domestic violence issues. I had an interesting first week, since everyone was rather suprised to see a male face around the office. There are lawyers, psychologists, intake personnel and other volunteers who assist at one stage or the other in the process of aiding victims of domestic violence. So it should go without saying that my work at CPK is not with clients. I'm not suggesting that victims of domestic violence can't interact with males, just that it's probably not ideal at the first, crucial stages of breaking from a violent domestic situation. The survivors should have everything working for them, with nothing that could hinder the process, including the possible awkwardness of going to the Women's Rights Center and being introduced to a male volunteer. Anyway, that's kind of an aside. 

What's interesting about the non-profit model is sort of paradoxical. On the one hand, you have very dedicated individuals working outside of traditional business models. It's not government - they don't have to rely on government dollars or follow complicated regulations to operate. It's also not for profit, so the driving force is not how much money they can make or how many new customers they can bring in. So there's a lot of freedom of mission that comes into play. On the other hand, freedom can be kind of scary. With a for-profit organization, all of your decisions and day-to-day revolves around making a better experience for customers, building or marketing a better product. With government, you fit in as a cog of a much larger machine, working to benefit some constituency in some social goal, with various means of obtaining pretty clear feedback (at least when your constituency doesn't agree with something you're doing). With a non-profit, however, it's kind of a mix, and the exact recipe is solely up to the organization. All at once, a non-profit has to conduct itself in a way that will bring in donors - the "investors" of the non-profit world - and stay true to the goal "traditional" sectors are ignoring or meeting poorly. The donors are "investing" in your vision and your ability to achieve that vision. And, at least with CPK, you have a kind of "customer" and a constituency - here, victims of domestic abuse. What you don't have with a non-profit are the kind of clear(er) success markers or pre-defined "global" goals that you find in the business world and government sector. No profit reports, no elections, no stockholders. A non-profit sets the goals - by definition goals that fall outside the traditional for-profit or governmental paradigm - and then has to find a way to measure their success. All elements are on your shoulders at a non-profit. 

CPK handles a lot of this really well. I don't have any rubric by which to compare, this being my first non-profit and all, but I have a pretty good handle on what makes a good organization, good. Consistency, strong leadership, clear goals, and a thousand smaller elements all go into making a good firm. CPK has these qualities in spades. What I have noticed, however, is that it can be difficult to both keep to the core ideals and expand them in appreciable ways without overreaching. As with any institution, there are finite resources including time and money. For-profit assigns these with maximizing profit in mind. Government allocates resources, most often, in line with some legislation or executive direction. Sure, the specifics are murky, which explains why many business fail, unable to operate profitably, and why the Post Office is, well, the Post Office. For non-profits, it can be harder, especially with a non-profit that has a relatively broad social goal, like reducing and ending domestic violence. Do we spend more resources lobbying for changes in the law? Do we devote those resources directly to the clients we have? Do we instead try to find and encourage to come forward more victims of domestic violence? Do we devote more time to fundraising? Do we tackle more novel approaches like addressing the underlying societal ills?

The problem seems, ironically, at least here at CPK, to be exacerbated by the life-blood of non-profit: the devoted social champion. At a non-profit, you're there because you believe in the cause. You want to make a difference. And, it seems, you think you know how that should be done. So there are dozens of equally dedicated voices clamoring to devote precious resources to dozens of possible initiatives. The number and fervor of ideas can be overwhelming. The key is to accept the good without discouraging the bad, because it can be hard to tell the difference. All of the myriad ideas seem "good" at best, and are noble, if misguided, intentions at worst. I've seen that it's hard to shoot down volunteers without discouraging their volunteerism - inherently motivated by altrustic incentives alone. When done well, it's an amazing thing to see. When it's handled not so delicately, it can be heartbreaking.

Maybe this is all self-evident to a smarter person like you, but I never really thought about non-profits before I worked for one. That is, nothing other than, "isn't that cool that they do what they do." But now I know that it's hard work, and not just because the cause is a tough one. It's hard to corral so much passion and parlay dreams into a cohesive final product. It's hard to keep focused on a goal when there are so many ways to address it. And it's hard to keep optimistic when stymied by inevitable setbacks and frustrating realities. And now I know that a good non-profit, more than just a do-gooder, takes all these difficulties and manages to make a difference in the world.

Color me pragmatically inspired.