Separate, We Lose

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The problem of fragmentation has characterized the nonprofit world from its very beginning. As the sector has grown at a dizzying pace in recent years, the virus of separateness has become more deadly, dividing ostensibly related fields of activity from one another, narrowing the vision of old and new organizations alike and paralyzing the potential of unified action on major public issues of the day.

In simpler times, when our economy was much less complicated, our population much smaller and less diverse and our nonprofits comparatively few in number, single organizations or initiatives could and did have an enormous impact on American society. The grange movement, with some 20,000 local chapters, played a major role in developing rural policy, leading to the creation of the rural extension service. The Townsend Clubs, which at one point numbered as many as five million members, were largely responsible for the 1936 passage of the Social Security Act. During the aftermath of World War II, the American Legion successfully lobbied the Congress to launch the GI Bill offering education benefits to returning veterans.

Today, only a handful of our several million nonprofits exercise such a disproportionate influence on the politics of our country (the National Rifle Association, AARP and the Christian Coalition come to mind). The paradox of our current nonprofit sector’s huge growth is that its very size has rendered it weaker, not stronger. The larger it has grown, the more splintered and divided it has become. Its leadership, responding to the pressures of one-issue constituencies and narrowly targeted financial support, has abandoned broad organizational vision for organizational mission.

Except in rare cases—such as the nonprofit sector’s fight for self-preservation against the Istook Amendment’s threat to first amendment rights—nonprofits have demonstrated their inability to win on major issues in the public interest such as strong gun control measures, national health insurance for all Americans, campaign finance reform, increased payout requirements for foundations, and affordable housing for low income residents. Our many organizations, large and small, find it difficult, if not impossible, to join in a common cause beyond the immediate self-interest of their individual nonprofits. Why should this be the case?

During the past 40 years, a vast number of new nonprofits have come into being, reflecting new social issues, subject areas, populist movements, ethnic and gender concerns and political developments. The very large majority of these have been focused on one or two issues, not on broad-based problems of our society. Whether their priorities were health, education, gay rights, the environment or consumerism, such organizations have attracted boards of directors with interest in and passion for their particular issue. The leaders chosen by these boards to run their organizations have tended to reflect their own predilections. It is not surprising that the organizations’ missions, for the most part, have been narrow. Staff leadership has been rewarded for its adherence to limited organizational goals, not to broader objectives.

Philanthropic practices have reinforced this narrowness, helping to keep nonprofit organizations in their program and policy silos. Categorical or special project grants are the mainstay of foundation funding. In 1997, only a little more than 13 percent of all the money distributed by foundations went to general operating support. Education groups are encouraged to run strictly education projects, community development organizations to operate exclusively housing and commercial deals and social service groups to focus only on their assistance programs. All these financial incentives drive nonprofits to constrict their activities and vision. There is little money available for coalition efforts that can bring different constituencies and organizations together for joint action on major issues of common concern. For all their talk about the importance of cross-cutting issues, foundations prefer the safety and comfort of limited projects and initiatives that carry few risks.

America’s growing culture of celebrity and the star system has also undermined the nonprofit sector’s capacity for cooperation and collaboration. Too many nonprofit leaders behave like prima donnas, unwilling to share either the spotlight or credit for their organizations’ success. These leaders serve as their organizations’ sole spokesperson; they are the ones who testify before the legislatures and they build their communication units around themselves. While such ego-building destroys organizational team spirit, these leaders nevertheless are rewarded for their behavior by their boards and donors and by the publicity they generate. Is it any wonder that they are reluctant to participate in coalitions and collaborations that depend on partnership and shared credit? Some of them actually come to believe that they and their organizations can win major policy battles by themselves. Recent nonprofit history is the story of battlefields littered with the bodies of these lone wolves.

Despite the many obstacles we face in overcoming fragmentation, there have been a number of successful coalitions in recent years. Yet it is much more difficult today to form a powerful coalition than it was 20 years ago. Back then, it was possible to convene 40 organizations—35 of which would be regularly represented at meetings by their executive directors. The other five representatives would be high level executives with the authority to speak for their organizations. Today, in a similar situation, one could expect only eight or ten of the organizations to be represented by their CEO and the remainder would consist of mid-level staff and interns with no authority to make an organizational decision. For a number of reasons, coalitions appear to be less of a priority to nonprofit leadership than was the case two decades ago. While many nonprofit leaders stress the significance of coalitioning,” few are either serious about or adept at creating and maintaining coalitions.

Nonprofit organizations focused on poverty know that affordable housing, poor health conditions, crime and drugs, under-performing schools and the lack of social services are all inter-connected and inseparable. Yet, their activities don’t reflect this understanding. If, for example, the organizations are health groups, they tend to spend little or no time on affordable housing or educational problems. The same is true for other organizations. When affordable housing issues were being legislated in the Congress, few non-housing nonprofits lent their active lobbying support. Similarly, housing organizations were not active supporters of health or children’s organizations when the former’s legislative measures were being considered. The inability or unwillingness of some nonprofits to lend a hand to colleague institutions is a major reason why anti-poverty efforts in recent years have not been sterling.

Continued violence in our urban and suburban areas and an irresponsible electoral system are two of the most serious obstacles to the development of a democratic civil society. The former stunts the healthy growth of our cities, casts a pall on our schools and creates a sense of insecurity everywhere. The latter has produced political leaders indebted to big money and special interests, unresponsive to the public interest.

Most nonprofits have a vested interest in the resolution of both problems. Why, then, have we not yet passed serious gun control measures or campaign finance reform? Many nonprofits would be prepared to devote a part of their agendas, maybe a substantial part, to a campaign focused on tackling both challenges. When I was executive director of the Center for Community Change, a national organization providing technical and advocacy assistance to low-income grassroots organizations, the Center either took the lead or participated significantly in a number of coalitions tackling important social issues. Yet, the Center was never asked by gun control groups or by electoral reform organizations to lend support to their causes, or join a coalition under their leadership. Knowing how crucial these two issues were to our mission, we would have been happy to spend some of our resources in helping resolve these problems. Numerous other nonprofits would have been similarly inclined. They were never asked.

As long as this state of affairs permeates the sector and fragmentation continues to increase, nonprofits will harvest their own little gardens, score some notable victories here and there, but remain incapable of resolving the big issues that impede our march toward greater economic and social justice. Can we do something about this? What steps can our nonprofit organizations, philanthropic institutions and universities and colleges take to remedy the situation?

First, foundations must begin to alter the way they do business in order to meet our civil society’s most urgent public needs. There is no reason why foundations cannot give more of their money for general operating support—what all nonprofits need and want. Flexible funds would permit charities to join and financially support coalitions and policy campaigns from their own budgets, something that many groups currently find impossible to do.

Foundations, including those that are reluctant to depart from their emphasis on special project funding, could set aside a special pot of money reserved for crosscutting policy efforts and building coalitions. Not only would this development signal to donees the importance of a broad vision and unified action, it would also provide a financial incentive to organizations concerned that coalitions will take funds away from potential member groups. Unfortunately, the avoidance of risk-taking, policy and advocacy efforts and coalitions has been the hallmark of mainstream foundations. Is it not time that the heads of these foundations begin to exercise their leadership on behalf of a more effective, less fragmented, nonprofit sector?

The leadership of nonprofit groups, including their boards, also has a responsibility for engaging in the big issues that transcend organizational missions and self-interest. So-called “umbrella” organizations, management support and technical assistance groups and associations of nonprofit professionals need to shift the focus of their concerns and conversations. Discussions of management techniques, improved technology, increased professionalization, methods of technical assistance and better personnel policies are important, but they are only a part of nonprofit life. The dialogue needs to be enlarged to embrace the policy and advocacy issues that are at the heart of our democracy and civil society. We require better administrators and technicians, but we need nonprofit leaders and visionaries even more. We should develop excellent program specialists, but there is an even greater need for coalition-builders. When honors and awards are conferred to outstanding nonprofit leaders, the criteria for this recognition should be not what they have done for their organizations, but what they have contributed to the sector and our society.

Devolution is transferring much of government and nonprofit action to the states and localities, yet many national and regional nonprofit groups do not reflect this new configuration. Instead of building their local membership bases, they continue to run as centralized, professionally run lobby groups, with membership involvement limited primarily to financial contributions. Left to themselves, many nonprofit professionals tend to become specialized, comfortable in routine, limited in vision. Strong, active nonprofit membership bases, such as those of Common Cause, Gun Control, Inc. or the NAACP, provide the best chance for broader approaches to our social problems. If wars are too important to leave to the generals, then our social problems are too crucial to leave to our nonprofit professionals.

For our universities and colleges, there is a special challenge: the education of broad-gauged, visionary leadership. The institutions have not yet met that challenge. Too few of our academic centers of philanthropy, nonprofit management and public policy studies are conducting programs that lift their students’ sights, enhance their coalition-building skills and nurture their courage and integrity. These centers need to develop leaders, not just program analysts, managers and technicians.

The nonprofit world cannot afford to sit back and passively accept the growing fragmentation of the sector. Foundations, nonprofits and institutions of higher education must unite to overcome this debilitating condition. Let this effort begin now.

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute. He served for 23 years as the executive director at the Center for Community Change, a national technical assistance and advocacy organization serving low-income community groups throughout the country. One of the founders of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, he remains on its board and sits on the board of eight other nonprofit organizations.