We Rock…Pass it on

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 11th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Last month’s “communiqué” (their word, not mine) from the Listening Post (Lester Salamon at Johns Hopkins’ Institute for Policy Studies) provides some great fodder for a new year discussion by boards and staffs alike—if not together.  The communiqué reports on results of the Institute’s research into the question of whether there are agreed upon and mutually shared values of the nonprofit sector.  In other words, do those of us in the nonprofit sector believe that there is a set of values—unique or not—that nonprofits as a sector embody?  And the answer, please?  Yes.

Salamon and his group relied upon a review of the literature and a multitude of interviews with practitioners and experts to identify seven values that they thought might be “the ones”—the key values of the sector that the majority embraces.  They are, in name and in the Institute’s explication:

–     productive: as in contributing to the economic well being of the community through creating jobs, applying dollars to solve social and community problems and adding to the community’s economic vitality

–     empowering:  providing opportunities for public dialogue, civic engagement and the mobilization of people

–     effective:  making a difference and providing high quality services and programs at a reasonable cost

–     enriching:  this is a broad value encompassing everything from creativity and preserving culture and history to every aspect of personal and community growth and development

–     reliable:  trustworthy, accountable and resilient (i.e., we are here now, will be here tomorrow and will be here for as long as we are needed)

–     responsive:  this one is pretty self-evident and embodies the fact that as a sector we respond to the needs of our constituents, go where others don’t go and do what has to be done, frequently innovating as we must

–     caring:  community based, serving the underserved and making our services financially accessible to all.

The researchers surveyed 1500 organizations with missions in the arts, community development and human services, to determine whether these seven values were, indeed, sector-wide values and how well these organizations embodied these values.  They received 731 responses, representing a statistically good representation of organizations by size and subsector.  The results are, on the one hand, not at all surprising—though important to have substantiated by valid research—and, on the other hand, somewhat distressing.

Over 85% of respondents indicated that the seven values were, indeed, core values of the sector, indicating that they were either important or very important.  The range was a high of 99% indicating effective and responsive were core values, to a low of 87% for productive.   Reinforcing the notion that these seven values are the common and shared values of the sector, over 80% of respondents said they did a good, or very good job, of embodying five of the seven values—effective, responsive, reliable, enriching, and caring..  Thus, the vast majority is practicing what it believes.  The majority of respondents also thought the nonprofit sector does these seven values much better than does government, that we do caring, enriching and empowering better than for-profits and that we do the remaining four better than or as well as for-profits.

But here is the rub and the important lesson from this research.  Barely a majority (53% and 52%, respectively) of respondents believed that the general public or the government understand what the sector represents as exemplified by these values.  Even fewer think the media (37%), funders (34%) or board members (13%), to mention only some of the other groups of stakeholders, understand these values and that they represent what makes the nonprofit sector so special.  And sadly, 62% indicated that the nonprofit sector does a poor job of tooting its own horn and letting those outside of the sector know just what it is they represent.  (Based on the findings, too many aren’t doing a good job of making this known inside the sector.)

Tooting our how horn, because there is something real and solid there to brag about, has never been more essential than it is now.  The threat of government cutbacks, an increasing number of jurisdictions rescinding the property tax exemption for nonprofits, the possibility of losing completely the charitable tax deduction, the rise of B corporations and L3Cs, and so much more, all make it essential that individually and collectively nonprofits start making it clear what we as a sector represent, what we bring to a community, how we enrich lives, respond to community need, care for those too many would like to ignore, relieve the burden on government, and provide an economic engine.

It is sad, but not surprising, that this was the value that scored lowest of the seven.  Barely a half (52%) of respondents said that being productive—being that economic contributor—was very important; only 25% said they embodied this value very well, while 33% thought the for-profit sector embodied this value better than the nonprofit sector—almost three times more than the next value that respondents thought for-profits did better.  Why?  There are all sorts of numbers out there to show the economic power of the American nonprofit sector:  1.6 million; 75 million paid and volunteer workers; the third largest industry in the American economy; and it generates $1.7 trillion in revenue.  Not too shabby!  So why don’t we recognize and embrace our individual and collective role as an economic force?

While discussing these seven values and whether they are/are not the values of the sector and whether your organization does/does not embrace them would, no doubt, prove to be an interesting and valuable conversation to have within your organization, there is an even more important one to have.  That conversation addresses how your organization is helping to promote the character of the nonprofit sector, how it is helping to get all stakeholders to understand the values that the sector represents and the good that it brings to our communities and our lives.  This is not a battle that can be one by a lone nonprofit.  Here we need and require the power of our collective voices.  We all will live or die by the success of the collective effort to voice the true value and contributions of our sector.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.