A few weeks ago, NPQ published an article titled “What Does It Look Like to Support Women of Color to Lead?” The response to the article was immediate, widespread, and heartfelt. Many readers contacted me and Wilnelia Rivera, who was featured in the article, asking us to continue highlighting the need to make a significant shift in the nonprofit sector to change the deep inequities and extremely challenging experiences of people of color in the sector. The conversations that ensued quickly turned to the state of nonprofit infrastructure and the general sense that it, as it is understood now, is not adequate.

This is not entirely new. In a 2008 NPQ article, Cynthia Gibson, an independent consultant who works with national nonprofits and foundations, writes,

The nonprofit sector is currently facing increasingly serious challenges and complexity that demand a stronger infrastructure…A healthy sector cannot be successful without an adequate infrastructure behind it. One only has to turn to the private sector to see what this investment looks like. The private sector has an extensive and established infrastructure that comprises scores of professional associations, a solid academic base and degree program (MBA), management and research firms, and lobbying arms with considerable power and influence. In contrast, the nonprofit sector has relatively few institutions dedicated to building the capacity of nonprofit organizations.

But, as this article will explore, the issues that plague the adequate development of nonprofit infrastructure revolve around a core tension about what the infrastructure is supposed to do. The nonprofit sector started out as a vehicle for voluntary civic engagement. Nonprofit organizations are organized to advance the public, rather than private, good. But as the sector grew and professionalized, the focus quickly shifted from the people, or civil society, to the organizations themselves as the key constituents of the sector. So, when we talk about infrastructure for the sector, is the infrastructure there to support civic engagement, or nonprofit and philanthropic organizations? This tension has been there from the beginning.

The Beginning

The first noted efforts for building nonprofit infrastructure can be traced to the 1960s and John Gardner, the engineer of the Great Society, who in 1965 was sworn in as US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.1 His mission was to end poverty, promote equality, and protect the environment. During his tenure, he enforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, launched Medicare, and redefined the federal role in education to target poor students. In the face of persistent social challenges, Gardner asked: “Why do we not have better leadership?”

The late 1960s in the US was a time of war (the Vietnam War) and social movements. In 1969, Congress passed the Tax Reform Act, which regulated charitable giving. Philanthropists quickly organized themselves and created the Commission on Foundations and Private Philanthropy. In 1973, the Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs, also known as the Filer Commission, after its chair John H. Filer, built on that work.

Though it was disbanded only two years later, the Filer Commission’s 1975 report, Giving In America, was a turning point for the developing sector. It detailed giving patterns, made recommendations on how to strengthen giving, and launched a detailed study of nonprofits—starting with the Program on Non-Profit Organizations at Yale University and including the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

The report also cohered nonprofit private entities as a third sector, after government and for-profit private entities. It recommended the creation of a quasi-public organization “necessary for the growth, perhaps even the survival, of the sector as an effective instrument of individual initiative and social progress.”

Some suspected that the dissolution of the Commission was due to concern on the part of “prominent nonprofit leaders such as the heads of the United Way and the American Red Cross, and even John Gardner” that “an independent commission with a sprinkling of community and grassroots representatives…would be too progressive and therefore detrimental to the established nonprofit sector.”

Amidst the dissolution, these leaders and their peers held private meetings regarding the future of the sector. The two largest infrastructure organizations, the National Council on Philanthropy and the Coalition of Voluntary Organizations, hired Brian O’Connell to explore the future of their organizations and sector. O’Connell’s report recommended that the two organizations merge into “a larger, more inclusive organization chaired by John Gardner.” The resulting organization, Independent Sector, launched in 1980 with a mission to “strengthen and promote a healthy, vibrant independent sector.” It is considered the first infrastructure organization for the sector.

The Development

In a 2004 article for NPQ, “The Future of the Nonprofit Infrastructure,” Jon Pratt, Executive Director of the Minnesota Council on Nonprofits, points out that the sector, which “was created in the last 25 years,” was just then entering “its middle stage of development.” Looking back, he finds the nonprofit sector behind its counterparts in the business and government sectors. He writes, “while nonprofit organizations have undergone substantial growth in finances and visibility, they have not, generally speaking, achieved their potential to influence their environment, their sources of support, or even a widely agreed upon understanding of their proper management or accountabilities.”

For Pratt, there was a pressing need at the time for the sector to “enter a second, more organized, focused, and coherent stage.” For him, the first stage evolved from a hub-and-spoke infrastructure model to a distributed network and the next stage needed to reduce fragmentation and increase the its “public-policy muscle.” Key to this was the need to “identify and focus on the primary constituency for infrastructure support—and to be responsive and accountable to it.”

But by then we were also noting that nonprofits were moving away from engaging the public. In 2008, writing for NPQ, Geoff Mulgan, director of the Young Foundation in the UK, in observing our sector from outside, notes,

To our surprise, in the area of bringing ideas from conception to action, we found little serious analysis of what works and what doesn’t. There was plenty of innovation in technology but little attention to how profound social change happens…most of the leading institutions seemed stuck in a model that was all about individual heroes and anecdotes rather than systemic changes.

Mulgan also highlights what may be the most important function for infrastructure, which, again, he finds lacking in our sector—working across boundaries. He writes,

Our research on innovation shows that the most important ideas move across and between the informal world of the household, grants, public agencies, and markets and that much of the most dynamic innovation happens on the border of sectors. Grasping these interconnections is key to serious social change.

Finally, Mulgan finds that, though we talk a lot about networks, we’re not that good at it.

Social innovators have to be canny at linking disparate networks not only to gain knowledge but also to mobilize resources and power…But I’ve been struck by the observation that some of the more official networks in civil society ignore the lessons by being too tightly controlled, too obsessively branded, too concerned with intellectual property, too siloed, and too insular—and unable to handle any language other than English. When less expensive and more collaborative networks could have achieved so much more, millions of dollars were wasted.

That same year, Margaret Wheatley writes for NPQ, “Most nonprofits survive by focusing on turf, status, and institutional ego…But this organizational self-centeredness limits nonprofits, whose role is the common good. This perspective has been only encouraged by funders, which promote nonprofit competition and an increasingly narrow focus.”

For Wheatley, the challenge is not one of leadership, but learning how to think. She advises,

Instead of insisting on specific, preordained measures, funders should support feedback loops that tell the system what’s happening and what needs to be adjusted in real time. Let’s have funder support—with money and time and patience—multiple means for people to come together across the boundaries of their individual nonprofits to truly collaborate. Let’s take community as the common focus and develop the skills of thinking well together, pushing one another to new levels of insight and practices that work. In other words, philanthropy should support communities of practice that are constantly developing and sharing wisdom about how to develop a nation of healthy communities.

A 2015 Foundation Center report on foundation giving for nonprofit and philanthropic infrastructure between 2004 and 2012 found that infrastructure funding accounted for between 0.84 percent and 0.60 percent of foundation giving—a nearly 30 percent drop. Ford Foundation and WK Kellogg Foundation were the top contributors. Four organizations—Foundation Center, Independent Sector, Council on Foundations, and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors—captured one-fifth of the infrastructure funding. This reflects a general trend noted by Tim Delaney, President and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, who, reflecting on the report for NPQ, notes that “funding for the nonprofit side of infrastructure actually shrank by failing to keep up with inflation.” He continues,

It’s not that foundations are opposed to infrastructure funding. Indeed, during this same time period, foundation giving to their own philanthropy-specific infrastructure grew at a rate that actually exceeded over-all giving…As the Foundation Center study observed, foundations are investing in infrastructure “organizations with which they are most directly engaged—in this case, grant maker networks.”

If we don’t question Delaney’s assumptions, we may think that the problem is between infrastructure funding for nonprofits versus philanthropy. But the real tension is one that has been there from the beginning between nonprofit infrastructure being about supporting civil society versus large nonprofits and philanthropy.

In the 2017 NPQ article “Nonprofits: the DNA of Democracy,” Gibson gets to the assumption and attitude underlying our sector’s approach not just to infrastructure, but in general: that “public participation in problem solving is optional.”

She writes, “At a gathering of nonprofit leaders from some of the country’s major nonprofits, an executive director declared that while the organization’s affiliates would be willing to host public forums on community issues, ultimately they would be ‘pro forma’ because ‘our experts know best what to do and how to do it.’”

She puts this all in perspective when she writes, “All this might be humorous if it didn’t involve the allocation of millions of dollars to initiatives that, without public participation and buy-in, will most likely fail.”

Civic engagement is seen as tangential to the effectiveness of the nonprofit sector, when in fact it is its core value. Social efficacy, rather than nonprofit sector efficacy, is the core outcome of this infrastructure. Gibson concludes that “nonprofits’ increasing professionalization creates an insular, expert-focused culture that discourages democratic participation.”

The Future

All of this gets a bit more complicated when we layer on issues of race and how the racism that underlies social challenges plays out in the sector. Wilnelia Rivera tells NPQ,

Funders and donors historically are afraid to fund ideas that are led by people of color. Whether they are concerned because of scalability, however they define that, or unconscious bias, or this ongoing perspective that philanthropy and investors can do this work themselves and just consult community at the right times. All those strategies in one way or another, we’ve seen them come up and flop.

To do this, Rivera points out, we need to drop whatever conventional forms we have of what leadership is. She observes, “We have an outdated cult of leadership. To me, the most effective leaders are those that understand that it’s not about leading from behind or knowing when to follow and when to lead. Your job is to always look at what’s inside of the ecosystem. What are people doing? How are people moving? Building relationships within that container consistently and over time, so that, as things shift, you can plot the dots actually connect to make something shift and move.”

Rivera also thinks there should be more infrastructure for social change. She sees her firm as part of a much-needed movement building infrastructure. She says, “In Massachusetts, when I think of the top lobbying firms, they’re not just lobbyists. They’re lobbyists. They’re planners. They’re strategists. They’re PR. They do crisis communication. They do engagement, apparently. They do all the cogs that you need to get something done in the state. Why can’t philanthropy invest in movement building firms that can do the same?”

Further, nonprofits and philanthropy need to invest in leadership throughout organizations and into communities. Rivera says, “At the end of the day, no matter what sector I work in, the people who are most active in organizations are the same people who are going to show up to a community meeting. And the more we’re training nonprofit professionals, the better equipped they’re going to be to engage in what change looks like at a block level. The idea is that if we’re going to flip engagement in a way that actually delivers the results that we want, we need to build capacity where we expect most of those people to be and that’s going to be in organizations.”

Finally, we need to figure out a way to give organizations the connective tissue to what’s around them but keep them focused on their mission, leveraging the connective tissue to serve their organizational mission. Rivera asks, “What’s the other connective tissue around you that can boost this space of yours, so that it serves other justice movements, and then when they come back to you, they’re more prepared to continue on your mission? It’s a different way of thinking about the work.”

It sure is.


  1. This department was later split into the Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services.

Correction: This article has been altered from its initial form to correct a misprinted figure.