Over the past few weeks I have been talking on the phone to leaders of nonprofit organizations all over the country to find out what they are doing in the context of an economically and politically confusing environment. The organizations’ annual budgets span from $50,000 to $54 million. What I have heard from those who lead them is nothing short of breathtaking. The degree of these leaders’ focus on mission, on the development of potential strategies to fit different scenarios, on collaborative advocacy and on the well being of clients and workers is remarkable. It reminds me of everything I have ever heard about the nature of the true entrepreneur — vision matched with risk tolerance that is in turn informed by a continuous analysis of market, and fueled by a drive for excellence.
Each situation I was told about was very different and sensitive to everything from the level of vulnerability of the particular field of practice (housing, arts, senior services, literacy, mental health) to the degree of deficit and political craziness in the state in which the organization is located, and the level of reserves, credit, fixed assets and flexibility of capital with which each nonprofit was working. Clearly, there can be no central playbook for nonprofits in this moment but what I have heard to date generally were stories of people working through a morass of unpredictable variables with patience and wisdom . . . and a huge measure of optimism and will.
This is in conflict with any “lo the poor, incompetent nonprofit” lament or commentary that portrays nonprofits as less than visionary, highly rational and well-schooled players; albeit usually undercapitalized.
I wish I heard more talk calling on the wisdom and power and constituent-informed independence of nonprofits at the national level where beltway groups have been developing nonprofit advocacy platforms to lobby the Obama Administration in this way or that. But too many of those actors are busy positioning themselves or their organizations or their agendas as the critical concern for the sector.
That’s why we were happy to hear of a more broad-based declaration entitled “Forward Together” emerging. We have reprinted it here not because we think it is perfect or because NPQ necessarily endorses it but because we believe that the intention of the authors is to make this a working document for the sector. It’s only a starting point for a sector-wide discussion of not only what nonprofits need at this critical juncture, but what the nation should look to nonprofits to deliver — not just programs and services, but more generally as vehicles for the expression of lived community values. This includes, of course, our role in organizing community voices for political advocacy.
So chime in with your ideas, concerns and criticisms and we will ensure that they are forwarded to the authors. At the Quarterly, we want to see a full-throated discussion about where we go in these times, what the sector needs to develop and do, and how we should relate — as both partners and watchdogs — with government and business. More than anything, remember that your voice matters immensely at this moment. Please think of us as the venue where your voice counts and will be heard.
As Mandela said in 1994, and as you already know through your work, “Your playing small does not serve the world.”