By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
I have found that our society has a difficult time understanding what a nonprofit organization is, perhaps in part because in a capitalist society where ownership and profit are prioritized, a nonprofit does not seem to make sense. Here, in simple terms, is what I have learned from my lifetime working for nonprofits as both an employee and as a director.
- Typically, the board of directors is comprised of volunteers who agree to take on the responsibility of acting as the owner. In my 13 years as executive director, I have probably worked with 60 to 70 people who have all shaped how we address the needs of our elders.
- Nonprofits sometimes have employees but often just have volunteers. Amazing work can be done with just volunteers (think of parent-teacher organizations) but the larger a company is, the more likely you need staff to run it.
- Nonprofits can be huge and international (like the Red Cross) or small and very local (like a small animal shelter).
- The term “nonprofit” or “not for profit” can be misleading. All companies earn revenue and have expenses. Some years are good and the revenue is higher than the expenses. Other years, the expenses are higher. A well-managed nonprofit can afford to lose money some years if they have saved money from good years. Usually, the budget is managed to allow for a small “profit” that helps the organization through bad years.
- Nonprofits typically hold themselves to a mission above all else and because of the mission, the work of a nonprofit seldom ends. The mission is usually a broad statement like, “To end homelessness.”
- Nonprofit directors often have many responsibilities. The most important responsibility is fiduciary and requires each director to make the best decisions for the nonprofit they can make. This often means they must understand the organization, supervise the executive director, and not engage in practices that put the nonprofit at risk (no risky investments, no self-dealing, etc.).
- Nonprofits do not technically have an owner, but the board of directors (also called the board of trustees) acts as the owner. They typically consider themselves accountable to the membership. Sometimes, like at a YMCA, the membership may be the people who pay for access to the programs and services they provide. Sometimes, the membership is the larger group of people that the organization could serve (like cancer survivors, students, members of a community, or people of a certain faith).
- The work of the nonprofit is typically done by the staff and volunteers. The primary roles of the board are to advise, set goals, and ensure that there are sufficient resources to meet those goals. Some boards rely on fundraising to meet some of these goals and the board often has an important role to play in this area.
- Everyone has skills that can help a board. Boards often need people who are representative of the membership, so even people with significant disabilities or who were previously incarcerated need to have their voices heard by certain organizations.
- Serving on a nonprofit board can be a great way to give back to a community or to immerse yourself in a cause that is important to you. It does not have to be a large time commitment. Many boards meet monthly or quarterly, and a board member’s job is to sometimes just be there for meetings and help guide the staff.
In 2022, we are facing the triple threat of war, climate change, and illness. Instead of despairing, I encourage all our readers to make a difference by finding a nonprofit that will help make 2023 a better year.