New and Improved? A Historian’s Take on Trendy Ideas for the Nonprofit Sector

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January 10, 2012; Source: Center for Effective Philanthropy | The U.S. nonprofit sector suffers from amnesia. While it’s always imperative to seek improvement, the yeoman’s work of our sector is sometimes marginalized and criticized for failing to embrace “new” ideas that lack grounding. Our dominant culture is biased toward innovation (see Cynthia Gibson’s recent NPQ article here) and away from history. We don’t sufficiently revisit the nonprofit sector’s rich experience in our country, though it demonstrates much success in terms of sustained public support and impact on major social issues.

This is according to the newly published Philanthropy in America by historian Olivier Zunz, which was recently reviewed by Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. Buchanan notes that “much of what we talk about as if it’s new—or not happening at all—has been going on in the U.S. for 100 years or more.” He highlights seven specific examples of our amnesia:

  • Nonprofits never die, and they should, because cycles of “creative destruction” drive market innovation. In fact, nonprofits do ebb and flow. During a three-year period of the Great Depression, a third of the nation’s private charities closed. Whether that drove future innovation is unclear.
  • We need to get out of our silos and work across sectors to achieve collective impact. A good idea, but not a new one. Zunz describes how sectors worked collaboratively to nearly eradicate tuberculosis in the early 1900s.
  • Corporate social responsibility can be compatible with profitability. Metropolitan Life Insurance’s funding of early tuberculosis studies is one historical example.
  • Philanthropists need to pay attention to policy and advocacy work. Zunz documents how philanthropists have historically “taken all sides in partisan encounters that have divided our society, and have strategically intervened in essential debates on citizenship, opportunity and rights.”  
  • We must address root causes. Zunz quotes a 1907 Outlook magazine article highlighting “the ‘new’ philanthropy’s insistence on long term solutions to social problems instead of temporary relief for the destitute.” Not a new concept, though difficult to implement with one-year funding chunks.
  • Philanthropy should extend beyond grantmaking to embrace impact investing. Tell that to the creators of the Cooperative Assistance Fund, formed in 1967 to invest in minority-owned businesses.
  • Nonprofits need to better market themselves. Is the issue really about marketing ourselves, or our causes? We can learn from our country’s historically high rate of charitable giving, which serves as evidence of effective communication by the sector.

How do you think we can better balance respect for historic lessons and breakthrough innovations?—Kathi Jaworski

  • Dianne

    Valid premise but surely there are more current examples than the tuberculosis crisis in the early 1900’s

  • Kathi Jaworski

    Absolutely, Dianne. But it’s a history book, and the point being made is that some of these ideas have been around for a LONG time. Want to contribute some more current examples? How about the fight on AIDS?

  • Ryan Steinbach

    I feel the more profound,and unsettling, point this article makes is that these ideas have been around for a while yet we have still not been able to fully implement them. Sure we have made progress, but we wouldn’t still be talking about them if they were already executed to an acceptable standard.

    I think this truely speaks to a issue of the non profit sector, fragmentation. Not just across sector and space, but also across time. Certainly something to think about.