Monday, August 30, 2010

The Toolkit

I'm frequently annoyed with the blanket lionization of the nonprofit sector. When I stumbled upon this video on the industry, via Tactical Philanthropy, called "Know Your Sector,"  I was expecting inspirational music and wide-reaching facts about how the nonprofit sector employs one in ten people and generates $1.1 trillion every year. And that is exactly what I got:

The video (which was produced by Philanthropy Reports) presents a very broad picture of the nonprofit sector, which I felt was not as inspiring as the music that went along with it. Phil Buchanan at the Center for Effective Philanthropy blogged about the video, saying it could help address the issue of the greater public's "ignorance of the nonprofit sector," but I do not see any real value in an education of the greater public on how many people are employed by one type of organizational structure. A similar movie could be made about the for-profit sector, or the governmental sector, which would most likely be very boring or very funny, depending on who made it.

Many times, I talk with people who clearly conflate the nonprofit sector with "doing good things" or "saving the world." As this video makes clear (although I doubt that was its intention), there are many nonprofits out there doing very bad things. It states that the sector is diverse, and covers organizations from the Sierra Club to the NRA. I personally think (but know there are those who disagree) that the NRA is one of the worst organizations in this country doing things that are fundamentally against social progress on many different levels. However, the head of the NRA and I are both included in the statistic that states "one in ten people work for the nonprofit sector." I do not like to be grouped-in with anyone who works for the NRA.

I will tell another story to illustrate my point: When I was job searching, I scoured job postings daily on like they were my ticket to salvation. (And judging the current state of the economy, they turned out to be just that.) I came across one posting for an editor position at a magazine dedicated to the promotion and well-being of cats.

Again, for emphasis: Cats.

My friends and I talk a lot about selling out, and when I saw that job posting online, I knew if I applied to it, I would officially be a sell out. But, that magazine was a nonprofit and it could post on Idealist. Working for that organization, I would have felt like more of a drain on society than at most corporations. Especially since I would probably have been able to make more in the corporate world and then donate more to charity.

My point is to not argue about which nonprofits are doing "good" or "bad" or "nothing at all," but to show that there is nothing special about the nonprofit sector. Do not limit yourself to thinking that only nonprofits can do good. At this place in time in our history, I feel like the nonprofit structure is the easiest organizational type to use if you want to create social change, but others are quickly adapting. (If you want to learn more about an interesting cross section of this transition, check out recent developments at Unitus and SKS. A good summary and analysis is here.) Even consumer goods manufacturers can be creating social change.

If you are looking to "change the world," nonprofits are only one option in your organization toolkit. Don't limit yourself to thinking they are the only thing in there. As I've said before, they are typically the most adaptable organizations working on the ground to solve problems and tend to be at the front of social issues, but there is nothing inherent in the tax structure that makes them better at working for social change than another type of incorporated organization. This is not a particularly profound conclusion to draw, but an important one to keep in mind.

Edit: Phil Buchanan at the Center for Effective Philanthropy responded to this post. You can see our back and forth here.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

1 comment:

  1. Jeff, I posted my reply to your comment on the CEP blog, here: