June 4, 2010; Source: Financial Times | The debates are as vigorous in the U.K. as in the U.S. around scaling up nonprofit capacity for expanded service delivery and solutions to societal problems. The Conservative/Liberal government of PM David Cameron has proposed something called the “big society” in which communities would take back power from the central government and nonprofits (and “social enterprises”) would operate schools and human service programs.

The Financial Times decided to ask a few experts about the realism of Cameron’s proposed “ethos of self-help and civic duty . . . hark[ening] back to 19-century ideals of philanthropy.” The handful of sources quoted in this article weren’t particularly hopeful for the nonprofit sector. The head of the charities practice, as the “sector’s leading auditor,” suggested that small community-based charities wouldn’t be able to handle contracts of the size the government would have to let if it really wants to hand power over to nonprofit program operators. The head of the Charity Commission is concerned that government would actually avoid small nonprofits because they wouldn’t be able to demonstrate economies of scale.

Others said that they could compete if local charities were to link up with larger name-brand groups, but there was little history of successful local/national teaming up on bids. The head of a charity think-tank, New Philanthropy Capital, said that the nonprofit sector “does not have a good track record of demonstrating value for money,” suggesting charities and the nation would be better off if groups would “scale up” to show clear savings for taxpayers. Fortunately, the Charity Commission executive director pointed out that quantifying success or financial savings on complex social problems was not always easy or practical.

And a spokesperson for the National Council of Voluntary Organisations sniffed out the think-tank’s business and markets bias, suggesting that private sector contractors were at best no better than nonprofits on that score: “Show me a company that is good at measuring this,” he said. “They are appalling. They just don’t see it as relevant.” Change a little of the syntax and spelling, this article could have easily been written about the federal dialogue on nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and measurement in this country.—Rick Cohen