Whose table is it, anyway?

For years, the nonprofit community has often found ourselves at the kids table, having to constantly fight to take our seat with our colleagues in the for-profit community to engage in important conversations for the greater good of the community.

Why haven’t we been invited to participate in these important conversations?  Could misperception and myths about the nonprofit sector stand in our way?

Kristen Merrifield is CEO at the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits.

What does it mean when the nonprofit sector isn’t around the table?  It means that stakeholders, community members and critical causes are not getting the full picture because we are a vital connection to those important pieces.  It means that voices we represent are not being heard.

When the nonprofit sector and our leaders are around the table, it means that we get the fullest, clearest picture of the issues and opportunities facing our communities.  It means that we contribute to the efficient resolution of issues.  And, it means that by sharing our voice, we ensure that we all use our limited time, talent and resources wisely.

But let’s dispel a few of those myths and misperceptions.

We are players.  According to an Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits-commissioned report from the Arizona State University Seidman Institute, nonprofits are the fifth largest non-government employer in Arizona, generating more direct jobs and salaries than the construction and manufacturing industries. 

Nearly 8% of Arizona’s Gross State Product – $23.5 billion – is generated by nonprofits.  And so is nearly 10% of all state and local income tax.

Another myth says we’re not part of the bigger conversation by not paying competitively to retain the best and brightest because the perception is that by doing so, we may be viewed as spending our limited dollars unwisely. Is it unreasonable to think we should pay a nonprofit professional $100,000 to help end homelessness or cancer or domestic violence?

Our sector is sustained by idealists who choose to do this work for much lower salaries than they could get elsewhere.  But, paying less-than-decent wages is not entirely our fault since historical and societal norms and restrictions have created a funding structure forcing us to Frankenstein different sources of revenue together.

And, then there’s that wacky and damaging notion that nonprofit staff should martyr ourselves.  But, the truth is, we lose too many talented staff because we are mired in this mentality of scrappiness that has led to undervaluing and underinvesting in the most critical factor in our quest for equity and social justice: the very people who do this work every day.

So how do we overcome the you-shouldn’t-be-spending-money-that-way perception and still pay for things that are absolutely necessary to attract and retain the best and brightest and carry out our programs?  Things that may fall into that dreaded “overhead” category like technology, accounting services and administrative support, but may not be covered by grant dollars?

One option is to consider diversifying revenue streams.  What opportunities are right in front of us?  Maybe a fee-for-service or social enterprise model?

In 2018, the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits team and board met to determine what we could do to most effectively serve and support the nonprofit sector.  How could we “move the needle “and make the biggest impact for Arizona nonprofits?

A recurring theme emerged.  Build. A. New.  Table.   And, invite more people to it.

And that’s just what we’ve been doing, beginning with that Seidman report showing the incredible economic contribution by the nonprofit sector.  We then passed our first bill in the Arizona legislature by showing the nonprofit sector’s strength and engagement to legislators and the media to protect the charitable deduction in Arizona.  We’re currently working to combat negative messaging about our industry be creating campaigns to help showcase our positive impact.  

That’s just a start.  We took a deeper dive at this month’s annual statewide conference where hundreds of nonprofits were represented. 

So, in answering the question at the top of this column: the table belongs to all of us. If there’s not room, we need to build one that’s newer, bigger and more expansive.

I’m happy to say, construction is underway.


Kristen Merrifield is CEO at the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, whose “2019 Engage Nonprofit Conference” is Aug. 21-22.  She can be reached at Kristenm@arizonanonprofits.org.