The Problem with Some Stories in the Nonprofit Sector

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Everyone extols the virtue of storytelling and I like a good story myself but let’s face it sometimes they can be…well, destructive, reinforcing of nonsense and misassumptions.

Yesterday we met with Trish Tchume and Jamie Smith, the national director and communications manager of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network—to consider the ways in which a partnership between us can move forward. Our common interest is in making sure that the intelligence of younger activists is both well recognized and well used in helping to advance the critical questions of the sector. It was a great meeting! But that is not my point.

I was thinking this morning about how our perception of the boundaries and categories of things can limit our understanding of the world—which of course makes us less effective. Trish and Jamie mentioned a recent encounter with the now very tired “what Millennials act like” storyline. Stories, of course, are an age-old mechanism for framing a situation, and they are super handy tools for exclusion as well as explication.

But I was also thinking about an article we published by Bill Schambra yesterday, in which he talked about the vibrancy of the civic activity in Detroit that exists unencumbered by “nonprofitness”: Schambra has a love for citizen action in its many most basic forms, and the article is not only an ode to such action but also a remonstration with philanthropy for not always recognizing citizen action’s intrinsic worth to community because it is unfettered (unless by the mutual agreement of participants).

And that reminded me of a newswire I did today about a for-profit business that is converting to a nonprofit, with some excellent reasoning and a community supporting the conversion.

Don’t get me wrong—I think the fact that we have an organizational category aimed solely at public benefit is just peachy, and I will defend it. But an over-obsession with what we are attached to because familiar is often a barrier to a full exploration of possibility.

Meanwhile, remember that you can submit essays to NPQ’s “Voices from the Field” department to ensure your intelligence is included in our mix!