Last week, Collen Dilen wrote a great blog post called, Does Writing a Check to a Nonprofit Equal Social Change? as a response to my November 11 radio show where I said that no, it did not.

It made me think of Penelope Trunk’s recent post pointing out that you don’t have to work in a nonprofit to do good. She also said that some nonprofits do more good than others. I took that to mean that some organizations produce more social change than others. The measures are arguable and I don’t think we’ll ever agree on them. But I do think that if you work in a nonprofit, you can tell pretty quickly whether your mission is being fulfilled and your community is being helped. Note that I did not say “served.” I said “helped.” Coordinating volunteers to serve food at a homeless shelter is much different to me than mobilizing volunteers to rally for legislation that would help get the homeless off the streets and into homes. That difference lies somewhere along the lines of what Archbishop Hélder Câmara famously said:

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”
I think you must do both in order to effect social change. But we can argue about that, too.

You can also tell when a nonprofit was formed out of a founder’s hubris, and the mission is pure bullshit. I’ve met so many of these types who wanted to start a business, but thought it was easier to file as a tax-exempt organization under the guise of helping people. But the only people who get helped are themselves. Cash rules everything around them.

So yes, I agree with Penelope on that point. Just because you go to work at a place that the IRS has deemed tax-exempt doesn’t mean you’re effecting social change. Not just by collecting a paycheck, you aren’t. Not just by doing what you’re told to do and keeping your head down, you aren’t. Even if you call yourself a social entrepreneur, it doesn’t automatically mean you are effecting social change. There’s a lot more to it than that, and I think it depends on how you define the change you’re trying to bring about. If it’s to reduce poverty in your community, for instance, are you doing that in your current role? You could be the development director for a nonprofit whose mission is just that, but does the money you raise enable that mission to occur? Does the bulk of it go to serving that community in a way that truly improves it?

Trabian Shorters,Vice President for Communities Program at the Knight Foundation wrote a brilliant guest post on the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Program on Social Entrepreneurship blog last year.  His view was that the term “social entrepreneur” means nothing.

I know that the many people who want to make social entrepreneurship a “field” say that we should have many levels of tolerance – from charismatic prodigy to nonprofit paper shuffler. Fine by me but let’s not confuse wage-making with changemaking.

Social change is NOT a field. It is a calling – a profession in the original meaning of the word. You may be called by your faith, your conscience, your ancestors, or your circumstances but the optimistic belief and integrity of a zealous changemaker (by whatever label) is vital to human progress. That makes it sacred.

We call our profession the nonprofit sector, with even more specific professions within that called fundraising, program management, volunteer coordination, etc. And I often see myself as supporting those that “do the work of social change.” But I agree wholeheartedly with Trabian that there is a distinction and we should not confuse every nonprofit employee with being a social changemaker. He puts it much better than I could:

The desire to simultaneously “make a difference” and “earn a living” is admirable and good – but you do have to prioritize one over the other. There is no “program” for social change nor a meaningful life. You must already have that desire kindled inside of you. It is the root of courage. For some, the desire to make a difference smolders and for others it burns. The rest are faking. Like any true love, it is impossible to embrace “social change” from a safe distance.

Think about that. No, really. If your aim is to come to the nonprofit sector to make a difference, have you chosen the right opportunities to allow you to do that? Was your aim to get a nonprofit job with a great salary or did your passion for the cause drive you to where you are now? Are you working in the nonprofit sector or are you effecting social change? Be honest with yourself. You can do both, but it’s not a given.