Non-Profits Waste Money & Businesspeople Are Heartless

Phnom Penh Cambodia skyline


I’ve just left Cambodia, where I gave a TEDx talk and met a lot of interesting people, and I walked away with a few realizations:

  1. My allergies do not appreciate the dusty heat of Cambodia
  2. Cambodian food is good, but the beer is just as weak as in Thailand
  3. Non-profits and entrepreneurs owe a lot to one another, but neither has much respect for the other

This last point came up a few times during my time in Cambodia, because parts of Phnom Penh are absolutely crawling with non-profit workers. Especially in the crew I was spending my time with, a solid 80% of the people I met were working for, working with or running a non-profit of some flavor.

I took advantage of the situation by trying to ascertain what I should be looking for in non-profits to team up with when I start businesses. I like to try and give a percentage of the profits from my ventures to a good cause, but at the same time I have trouble finding groups that I feel are using the money wisely and not wasting it on bureaucracy and organizational lolligagging.

Now, I didn’t say it exactly like that (I felt I was very diplomatic with my words, but I’m also biased), but every single time I brought up this concern, I was immediately pounced upon and argued down. “No, business people simply don’t understand that there are costs associated with doing this kind of work and it can’t be measured the way they want it to be” with the last part unsaid but implied, “so they should just shut up and give us their money.”

And that kind of sums up the problem coming from both sides, doesn’t it? The fact that businesspeople tend to look down on non-profits as people not capable of making money for themselves…beggars with their hands outstretched, spitting on the businesspeoples’ shoes while demanding to have their endeavors paid for.

In the same way, folks who work with non-profits tend to look at businesspeople as individuals who only care about the bottom line and see everything as a transaction, even things that are clearly valuable but not necessarily in a way that you could explain with a spreadsheet.

What both sides need to realize is that the very things they criticize about the other camp is what makes their own lifestyle possible.

Non-profits could not operate without funding by definition, so being critical of those who make money (and the mindsets that it takes to make that money) is silly, and counterproductive.

Similarly, without people in the world who are willing to work on projects that do not pay off financially (at least not in obvious ways), the quality of life businesspeople enjoy would be severely hindered by expansive poverty, disease and other infrastructural issues that no one would take care of otherwise.

The issue – as I see it, at least – is one of communication.

Because businesspeople and the non-profit crowd don’t speak the same language, we have trouble communicating that we really want the same things…better lives for as many people as possible, and the resources to make positive things happen going to the right places.

When someone from a non-profit background sees a problem, they’ll likely organize a group and go get their hands dirty together, building the bridge or the library or delivering the healthcare supplies or whatever it is that needs to be done. A businessperson, on the other hand, will be much more likely to want to figure out how they can create a sustainable stream of resources to fund bridge-building in the area, pay for more books or otherwise create torque that way.

This is a good thing! This means that we have people with different strengths focusing on what they do best. Further, their skillsets are complimentary, so while one is good at funding, the other is good at doing. Win-win-win!

What both sides really need to work on, however, is that communications gap.

Businesspeople will be businesspeople, and what we want to see is some indication that we aren’t just paying for people from first world countries to hang out in third world countries and eat our contribution checks while playing at being rugged. We want to know that the resources we bring to bear are making a difference in some way, and that they are being applied in the most effective and efficient way possible. A non-profit that is able to figure out how to translate their efforts into visible or more-measurable results will find themselves with a lot more funding and support.

Non-profits will also be non-profits, and they want to know that they efforts are appreciated and that the difficulties they face are understood by the people signing the checks. It’s not always possible to show numerical evidence of progress, because a lot of what they are doing is such core infrastructure that the results will not be seen for another generation or two. The biggest issue that most non-profits seem to run into is funding, though, so if more businesspeople would be willing to commit long-term (rather than hopping on whatever cause is most trendy at a given time), I would imagine more non-profits would be able to communicate the impact their resources are having in a way that makes sense to everyone, because they would know the resources are in place to plan longer-term.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not trying to offend anyone (I wanted to emphasize this, since it seems like any time I bring up this issue with people from either side, they immediately go on the defensive instead of participating in the discussion in order to find a solution), and I think the there are a whole lot of good people on both sides of the fence that have similar goals and good intentions.

Just remember that we NEED one another, and everyone benefits when we work well together.

All we have to do now is tear down the fence and start learning each other’s language.