Why Pay Attention to All This “Big Picture” Stuff?

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At the recent annual conference of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, Paul Light spoke eloquently about some of the “big picture” issues that he and other leading thinkers of our sector are focusing on—things such as our collective identity and our place in U.S. society. Paul’s twin brother Mark, who heads a nonprofit in Dayton, Ohio, was a respondent. Mark’s first comment was, more or less, “That’s all very interesting, Paul, and I’m glad there are people like you to think about these things, but I have an organization to run every day, and that kind of reflective time isn’t on my agenda. I want to know how your work will help me with mine.”

To me, it seemed especially apt to have twins reflect these two legitimate yet contrasting perspectives, because they represent the yin and yang of nonprofit practice. Many of us struggle daily with the need to be visionary and practical simultaneously. The global issues are important, obviously. For one thing, deliberations and conclusions about the “proper” role for our sector determine governmental and foundation policy-making that can impact nonprofits and philanthropy for decades. Equally importantly, these public conversations shape the way each of us thinks about our own organization in relation to other nonprofits and our constituents—our “mental model” of our place in society. If we aren’t clear ourselves about being part of a powerful, cohesive sector of society and about what the sector’s role is, we will not be effective advocates for our constituents.

But Mark Light’s question is not trivial. Like Mark, many of us have very limited opportunity to worry about these issues. We may want to spend time thinking globally, or even regionally, but we’ve got more immediate concerns: getting proposals out on time, dealing with internal personnel and financial management issues, keeping our boards up to date, meeting with funders, trying to plan programs, figuring out how to integrate technology into our operations without breaking the budget, and so on. And some of us actually prefer this type of daily management challenge—where tasks have a beginning, middle, and end—to the abstract thinking required for big-picture policy-making.

The danger, though, of burying ourselves in the details of daily operations is that we risk contradicting the very principle we claim to stand for: constituent involvement in decision-making. For as nonprofit advocates, service providers, and associations, we are key stakeholders in the third sector, and as such we have an obligation to make our voices heard on the issues that affect us directly and to participate as equal partners in defining our relationships with business and government. Even in the 21st century, these relationships are too often colored, on all sides, by the outmoded, noblesse oblige notion of nonprofits as recipients of charity who should be grateful for whatever beneficence those with wealth and power deign to bestow upon us.

If we fail to articulate and advocate for a more appropriate paradigm that recognizes the central place of the nonprofit sector in creating and maintaining community and culture, others whose views and values we may find objectionable or simply uninformed will control the debate and determine the policies that will govern our work and impact our colleagues and constituents. We jeopardize this work and those constituents if we do not advocate consistently and effectively for ourselves, at whatever level is possible given our resources and talents.

So the next time you hear a speaker talk about “the role of the nonprofit sector,” or are asked to sign on to support or oppose a piece of legislation, or see an article on the latest trends in nonprofit management, don’t close your ears or roll your eyes or turn the page—even if that’s your first impulse. Take a few moments or more to consider how you might respond or participate from the perspective of a member of a large and powerful community of nonprofits; then do it! Remember the old slogan from the 60s: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

About the Author
Jonathan Spack is executive director of Third Sector New England.