As I enter into in the final leg of my tenure in a leadership position in the nonprofit sector, I recognize that there is something vital to the sector that I simply do not know and no amount of research, thought or discussion will enlighten me: what will the nonprofit sector look like in 10 years?
In a recent conversation with a colleague I was bemoaning my inability to envision the future of our sector. Will it exist? Will we be thrown to the curb? Will our work be done by socially driven for-profits? Will it all be public-private partnerships? What will the role of government be? My colleague made a very simple, but breathtaking comment: the loss of the nonprofit sector will mean the loss of humanity.
I’ve had time to ponder this statement; actually, it won’t leave me alone. I read a report that shows white Generation Zs “mildly disagree” with the statement that “the First Amendment goes too far in its rights and guarantees.” Seriously? How can protection of a free press in a democracy go too far? How do you only tepidly disagree? Students of color don’t agree with the statement, but they are a bit more tenuous in their disagreement than their white peers. If nonprofits disappeared, who would safeguard the Bill of Rights?
The just-released 2019 Give.org Donor Trust Report reveals the standard picture of the nonprofit sector: we are trusted more than the other branches of our economy—government and for-profits—but we are far from perfect. What is most confounding (and found in similar research) is that while almost 70% of the survey respondents say that having trust in an organization before giving is “essential” (ranking this 9 or ten on a ten point scale), only 19% indicated a high degree of trust in nonprofits.
This suggests that trust exists on a sliding scale, as opposed to all or nothing. You either do or you don’t trust. Therefore, people are giving to organizations which they rank as less than a ten on a degree of trust scale. Obviously then, trust doesn’t reign supreme in philanthropists making decisions about where to give their money. Trust, what I refer to as the currency of every nonprofit, has been devalued, with no gold standard. One could argue that there was a time when nonprofits were the gold standard for others, being held to a higher set of ethical expectations and falling faster and further when those expectations were violated. If there were no nonprofits, who would set the bar—even if, sadly, the bar is way lower than it should be?
Nonprofits have long been criticized, sometimes rightly so, but other times quite unfairly, for not being sufficiently business-like. This can and does mean different things, but this time read it as being too caring.
I’ll be the first to admit that there are instances where we are too caring than we should be, most notably when we let an underperforming staff member—even the executive director—or a board member— stay on long after their lack of performance is harming the performance of others and, thus the organization.
But caring is in our DNA. Only those organizations that demonstrate to the IRS that they are working on behalf of the public good get approved as charities. Every charity, and, by extension, those who work there, regardless of mission, philosophical leanings, ideology, etc., must demonstrate care and compassion for humanity every day. I always challenge nonprofits to consider their responsibility to issues of social justice, presented simply by virtue of being a nonprofit, even when social justice isn’t part of their missions. If nonprofits were to disappear, what industry is position and able to pick up the cause of humanity?
As you spend Thanksgiving reflecting, ponder what society would be like without nonprofits. Would our humanness—our caring, compassion, fellow feeling, etc.—be left without models and outlets, and, most importantly, a champion?