When I first applied for an internship at GuideStar last fall, I wasn’t even 100 percent positive it was a nonprofit—that’s how little I knew about the nonprofit sector at the time. Although I had made a few donations, volunteered a bit, and could name some large organizations, I thought of nonprofits as charities like the Red Cross or the Humane Society of the United States and didn’t understand what role a nonprofit information database played. I didn’t know anything about the different actors in the nonprofit sector and how their work affected my life, whether I was aware of it or not.
Just this past weekend, Comic-Con drew huge crowds to the San Diego Convention Center and filled the internet with exciting announcements and fun cosplay pictures. A few weeks ago, I learned the San Diego Comic Convention is actually a nonprofit organization. Dedicated to creating awareness and appreciation for comics, this educational organization brings in millions of dollars each year. The nonprofit sector isn’t a one-size-fits-all industry, and the widespread impact of philanthropy takes shape in many ways that still surprise me.
The Way You Unwind
Even if Comic-Con isn’t exactly your scene, there are many other nonprofit organizations that affect the way you live, relax, and unwind. Whether you’re enjoying community theater, strolling through a park, wandering around a museum, or going to church, there are nonprofit organizations at work around you every day. In fact, even the National Hockey League is a nonprofit, classified as a 501(c)(6) organization. The purpose of this classification is to promote common interests (such as hockey) and not to engage in a regular business carried on for profit. The NFL was also classified as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit until it dropped its tax-exempt status in 2015.
The Way You Drive
One of my favorite stories about nonprofit impact concerns the Dorr Foundation. In the early 1950s, roads had a white line down the middle but no lines on the sides. Engineer and inventor John Dorr noticed that when drivers were blinded by inclement weather or oncoming headlights, they tended to hug the middle line or veer onto the shoulder, causing accidents. His idea was that painting a white line on the side of the road would give drivers a guideline to follow to avoid danger, but he wasn’t able to get state funding to test his theory. Through his family foundation, he financed an experiment that found accident rates dropped by 65 percent when white lines were painted on the sides of the road. Soon, all states implemented the lines, and today, it’s an innovation we take for granted—and one that many don’t realize came to fruition through philanthropy.
The Way You Learn
There are lots of education nonprofits out there. Literacy and tutoring programs like Jumpstart and Kipp have a huge impact in spreading knowledge. Other, less noticeable nonprofits, however, also foster education. For example, your local Parent Teacher Association is a nonprofit organization, under the umbrella organization National PTA. Founded more than 100 years ago, the PTA is one of the largest and oldest volunteer organizations working exclusively on behalf of children.
Many universities are also nonprofits. There are no owners or shareholders, so the primary purpose is not generating income but instead providing a quality education for students. Similarly, numerous hospitals are nonprofit and funded by charity, religion, or research/educational funds.
The Way You Spend
Capitalism and philanthropy have always been closely tied together. I always think of holiday shopping in December and how I’m compelled to donate when I see the Salvation Army red buckets on street corners and in malls. Even as far back as the 1600s, alms boxes were typically placed in taverns where business negotiations took place; a successful deal almost always concluded with a charitable gift. The tie between capitalism and philanthropy continues today. A new trend called “conscious capitalism” is emerging. Fifty-five percent of global online consumers say they are willing to pay more for products if they’re from a sustainable brand, according to a 2014 Nielsen study.
I also think of the information necessary to make informed spending or giving decisions. Even if they’re not nonprofits themselves, have you ever thought about where organizations get this information? I didn’t until I started working at GuideStar. As the largest nonprofit database, GuideStar’s data fuels not only its own website but also more than 200 philanthropy websites, including Amazon Smile and Facebook.
If someone had told me a year ago about all the different ways nonprofits affect my life, I’m not sure I would have believed them. I had a very narrow view of what I thought a nonprofit was and never thought about what this perspective overlooked. Public charities are just part of a huge sector that includes private foundations, social advocacy groups, trade associations, and more. These groups vary in size, region, and cause area. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the wide variety of work in the nonprofit sector affected my life even before I started working here—and will affect the way I live for years to come.
Abbie Wade is a communications coordinator for GuideStar. She is currently a rising senior at The George Washington University, studying Journalism & Mass Communication and Political Science.