The roots of nonprofit power need tending

28 Oct

Ruth McCambridge, Editor in Chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly, keynoted the second annual meeting of the Nonprofit Association of Oregon earlier this month. As an editor and a speaker, she encourages “pushing the edge” of what’s popular or easy to say, because that makes us more strategic, more persevering, and more respectful of the challenges we’re trying to address. Here are some of the edgy themes she highlighted about the future of nonprofits:

  • Non-profits have come a long way toward being well-run institutions. In focusing on professionalization, however, nonprofits have strayed too far from their original roots in volunteerism and community engagement. The power of nonprofits to effect change is rooted in their relationships with their constituents, communities and volunteers—we need to be sure that what we do is steeped in their voices and aspirations.
  • The more we are authentically connected with our communities, the more transparent and accountable we must be. If we are not, our stakeholders may revolt. Social media makes us both more powerful, and more vulnerable if we fail to be relevant and useful.
  • Nonprofits need to expect, and respond to, continued blurring of lines between the public, private and nonprofit sectors.  For example, both philanthropic and private dollars are increasingly being used to backfill what used to be public sector funding responsibilities in areas such as education and public safety.  In some cases, the private dollars are outweighing public investment, which could alter public services and infrastructure in a way that challenges, in McCambridge’s words, “the spirit of democracy.”
  • Related to this, the tax-exempt status of nonprofit owned real estate is being questioned in many cities as municipal governments are increasingly desperate for revenue.  In what appears to be a “Sophie’s choice” dilemma, the right policy response for a given community and a given nonprofit is not cut and dry.
  • We have become far too enamored with “innovation” for its own sake, to the detriment of non-glamorous but effective work happening every day at the local level meeting real needs that exist now in communities.  In fact, according to McCambridge (and I agree!), what’s being funded now in the name of innovation is not generally innovative. It is funding for known organizations to scale up their existing programs to cover more geography.  It favors picking “winner models” and applying them over and over in different contexts: McCambridge points to urban renewal as a historic example of that same principle gone awry. She also argues that, in fact, this approach flies in the face of real science about what drives innovation: undertaking a diversity of experiments, trying to disprove as well as prove what works; building a diverse learning community; following up on questions you didn’t know you had; and respecting all the variables.
  • The direction of change for the future is unclear, and unnerving.  Nonprofits need to develop their capacity for rolling with the unexpected, because that’s what we’re in for.  If we aren’t well-known, large and/or focused on popular issues, we may not naturally have the access we need to useful research about our issues, colleagues testing promising approaches, and like-minded funders.  McCambridge advocates for intentionally building networks that can help us do this, and cited successful examples in the fields of community health and neighborhood reinvestment.
  • In addition to building networks for learning, nonprofit leaders are on the line to be effective advocates for their communities, even when it’s uncomfortable.  We have to be tough enough to defend what we believe in. As McCambridge stated the challenge, “Be prepared to be diverted, marginalized, seduced or attacked,” and then she quipped with a grin, “I’d much rather be attacked than seduced anyway.”

Finally, McCambridge talked about why she’s optimistic anyway. Citing the fresh energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement, she reminded us that the original source of power for the good work of non-profits, people who care about their communities, is all around us. We just need to better engage and adapt to new types of leaders, new ways of communicating, and more borderless organizational structures, and take joy in what’s possible with all this energy.