Chaos, Order and the Alliance for Nonprofit Management

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I know you value NPQ’s quality coverage of this increasingly important sector. If you donate to NPQ by midnight tonight your donation will be tripled by a generous foundation. (Total pool is $50,000)

I want to ask you to Grand Rapids, Mich. next week, where a whole group of astute observers will be sitting around thinking about what the heck is going on in nonprofit management right now—how it is changing and how groups can be helped to adapt. The event is the annual conference of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, where consultants to nonprofits, academics, nonprofit leaders and philanthropists come together to learn from one another. The event is aptly named Evidence Based Capacity Building. Along with the brilliant Carlo Cuesta, I will be co-presenting a session on strategic communications that will use all the most recent research to consider how that area of management is being profoundly changed right now.

NPQ co-sponsors the research-to-practice conference because we like to acknowledge that order often presents itself, rather than being imposed by force or normative prescriptions. To illuminate this point, here is a great quote from Benoit Mandelbrot that I used in my most recent article for NPQ (not yet published): “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”

Mandelbrot believed in roughness and in finding the essential forms in roughness—a stance that everyone of good sense should be taking right now. And when we are trying to understand the nature of a thing, it helps to get a sense of the thing from multiple perspectives. What does the thing look like here or there? How about if it is governed this way or that? What if its environment completely changes and no longer feeds the thing exactly as it used to?

This series of questions reminds me of Green Eggs and Ham, but these are all very big questions for nonprofits that are especially important when all about us looks unpredictable. So I hope that Mandelbrot is not turning over in his grave at my flat-footed discussion of very complicated stuff, but I do hope to see you in Michigan next week. Let’s try to map the current roughness of our work together.


    I serve as the executive director of a non-profit that i founded 25 years ago. What I find troubling about this teaser/article is that it doesn’t really tell me enough to make a trip to Grand Rapids, MI., for this assembly very worth the time and expense. True, i know the struggles of non-profits, and we have had our share of those struggles, but i must also report that this is also the best year of funding that we have had in well over 10 years. Running a non-profit is both a privilege and a calling. To lose sight of this is to be there just for a paycheck. Times like these separate those with a calling and those seeking a paycheck. It may just be that these present economic times are serving as a much needed weeding out process rather than an actual crisis for non-profits. Those who are committed to a cause will find a way to continue doing what they are doing regardless of the economy. Those who aren’t committed to a cause will find another place to draw a paycheck.