There are somewhere around 1.2 million nonprofits in the United States. These organizations represent the interests and personal efforts of millions of this nation’s citizens and residents. They are the places where people convene around their common convictions and interests and take action together. They are an essential and much copied element of our democracy . . . and they are unfathomably diverse, reflecting the rich mosaic and deep energy of this country’s people.
Unfortunately, until recently, there was little in the way of infrastructure to support this essential ingredient of a rich civic life.
As it is described by individual nonprofits working at street level, the networks they are a part of and the organizations that support them comprise a combined central nervous and circulatory system. That is why we have used largely organic images to illustrate this issue. When working well, these functions allow the whole sector and each of its component parts—the individual nonprofit organizations we referred to — to operate more effectively in their environments.
In putting this issue together, we found that what makes the nonprofit infrastructure work well is an attentive and disciplined fluidity — an ability to pick up information and ideas from any point in the system, make sense of them, understand their broader import, figure out their applicability, and circulate them among those nonprofits that might find them useful. When a system processes information over time through discerning hubs, it eventually, as a whole and in its component parts (individual nonprofits in this case), gains wisdom and maturity — it knows how to address the common problems that might threaten it and how to negotiate to best effect with powerful external forces.
When such a system functions well and wisely, it gains and can easily mobilize influence and power.
There is clear evidence — research-based and anecdotal — presented in the following pages, that a healthy infrastructure makes the work of individual nonprofits more effective. This means that your grants in general will be more effective — in some cases far more effective. You will read in this issue that infrastructure helps nonprofits function better individually and together and actually improves program outcomes.
This special issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly is one response to the recent reduction in the pool of funding that had been available for national infrastructure, so we particularly wish to call attention to this level of the work. The funding for national infrastructure has to date largely been contributed by a few national foundations. Perhaps because of the distributed and networked nature of the nonprofit infrastructure, the national entities — although well used — are not widely supported by local funders. We want to help change that model by presenting a powerful case for your support of all levels of a healthy, dynamic, future-oriented nonprofit infrastructure.
Finally, we would like to acknowlege Cindy Gibson from Carnegie Corporation of New York for her editorial contribution and her determination in publishing this issue.