Nobody Wants To Play Find The Non-Profit

I have mentioned before that people don’t normally perceive a difference between non-profit and for-profit cultural organizations. Colleen Dilenschneider has a good summary of the research showing this.

What makes people care about the difference between for-profits and non-profits is the positive social impact that the organization is achieving.

Dilenschneider writes:

Nonprofits do not “own” social good. Corporate social responsibility is a necessity for companies today. There are countless articles on the importance of for-profit companies doing good. It is a key tactic for gaining customers and increasing sales.

Being good at your mission is good business. Data demonstrate that organizations highlighting their missions outperform those marketing primarily as attractions.

Interestingly, this is the one area in which non-profit identity definitely works in favor of their tax status. In a piece on The Conversation that Non-Profit Quarterly cited last summer, researchers found the following (my emphasis):

In one study, we asked people to donate money to an organization supporting literacy and education. The only difference was that some people were told the company was a for-profit social venture – it had a social mission and also made a profit. Other participants were told it was a nonprofit. People gave 40 percent less money when they believed the organization was a for-profit social venture.

In another study, we gave people money and asked them to purchase a decorative notepad from one of two organizations. When given a choice to buy it from a nonprofit or a for-profit social venture, nearly two out of three people went with the nonprofit.

It seems people don’t think companies can make a profit and support a social cause at the same time.

These findings along with Dilenschneider’s data may emphasize the value of highlighting your organizational mission and the impact you have over encouraging people to engage with you in a commercial manner.

Before you get too excited thinking this could be good news if you just change your messaging, the researchers in The Conversation had additional insight that recalls our old nemesis, Overhead Ratio.

…emphasizing a social cause makes people think the company is altruistic. When the company also makes money, this flies in the face of a belief that it’s generous or altruistic. When companies have a social mission, people tend to think that all money should go to the social cause…

This doesn’t mean that nonprofits always win though…when people were told the nonprofit was known to have excessive spending, the majority of people flipped and bought their notepad from the for-profit social venture.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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