Humble Non-Profits?

 This weekend, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni described the characteristic he most admires in Pope Francis: humility.  Specifically, Bruni noted that Francis’ tone and demeanor often reveal a man who recognizes that he does not know everything, and cannot presume to preach that of which he is not certain.  Bruni goes on to, somewhat nostalgically, hammer politicians from both sides of the aisle for not demonstrating more humility in their own work.  Bruni makes a powerful point- as our country engages in important, potentially catastrophic debates in our nation’s capital regarding the budget and debt ceiling, it seems that all politicians know the right answers, without acknowledging uncertainty.

 I agree with most of the argument, and it’s one I wish that politicians would pay attention to (but know they won’t).  But in thinking about Bruni’s argument, I actually thought about the non-profit sector in general.  And problematically, I think that many of us fall into the same trap- assuming we have all the answers and all the solutions.  Generally speaking, just like politicians, non-profits could take a page from the Pope’s playbook and act a little more humble.

I know that sounds a little strange.  After all, non-profits are doing good work, trying to make a difference in the world.  But I think there are a few structural problems that holistically actually de-emphasize humility:

1)   Non-profits are positioned as interventionist solutions to big societal problems:  If you look at any foundation’s grant proposal guidelines, they ask non-profits to describe the “problem”, and then describe how they are the “solution.”  For Generation Citizen, we typically talk about the problem being something like “lack of political participation” or even broader, a “crisis in our democracy.”  Then, we pitch that action civics will help solve this problem.

So…that’s not really true.  While I believe that GC makes a difference, the reality is that there is no way we can solve for the lack of political participation that plagues this country.  We can be part of the solution, but it’s a really really complex multi-faceted solution.  But all too often, non profits, including ours, pitch themselves as the silver bullet or panacea.  We need to humbly acknowledge that we are only a small sliver of the solution.

2)   Collaboration rarely happens: Part of the problem with our current political landscape is that politicians are always looking over their shoulder. Between of the need to constantly fundraise, the threat of primary challengers, and the toxic political environment, it’s difficult for politicians to actually collaborate and get things done.

It’s actually a little similar for non-profits.  Foundation money is not never-ending.  So while philanthropists might say that they value collaboration (and the best ones actively promote it), the problem is that non-profits always have to be looking out for themselves.  This plays out in priorities as well.  GC is part of the National Action Civics Collaborative.  And while I completely believe in the Collaborative, it too often becomes a low priority for me, because GC is always priority #1.

3)   Cults of Personality are Encouraged: It’s well known that folks in the non-profit sector make a little less money than those in the for-profit sector.  Because of this, and the mission driven nature of our work, I often receive praise for a job that actually gives me a lot of internal gratification.  I’m lucky to do something I love, and don’t really think I should get the external praise. 

But this happens a lot with “social entpreneurs”- especially young ones.  And in today’s interconnected, social media infused world, it’s even easier to get praised, create personal brands, and become a “thought leader” (this blog is actually an example of that, in some sort of hypocrisy).  I’ve been lucky enough to get some accolades along the way, but to be honor, it bothers me- because they take away from the folks we are working with, and they take away from my team.  And it makes it a little easier to not be humble.

So what’s the answer to all of this?  To give a silver bullet response would completely undermine the argument.  But I think it lies somewhere in being self-aware and intentional.  I don’t think GC, or me personally, is as humble as it can be.  But if we try to, and if other organizations in the space do the same, we might make progress on some of those structural barriers.  From the Pope to politics to non-profits, humility is the most admirable of goals.


– Scott Warren, Executive Director


Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.