In the collective pain of this moment, when our days are filled with death and fear, a new America is being conceived of and demanded. But moments are made by movements. If we want to change the world, it could be instructive to pay attention to a group of people who have radically changed their own.
“The Tenants who Evicted Their Landlord,” Michael Desmond, New York Times
This is one of those times we can feel parts of the so-called “nonprofit infrastructure” straining mightily to appear relevant, even while others are right on the mark. Faced with an existential crisis of immediate consequence and epic proportions, some focus firmly on the survival of current institutions: will “nonprofits” survive or not? But is that really the question? The one we have in front of us right now is more like, “What forms will we be taking when the environment begins to stabilize, and how do we retain our most important functions as they will be needed by the public?”
In any case, in this article, we are responding to The Health of the US Nonprofit Sector, the most recent report of the Independent Sector (IS). For the uninitiated, IS is an organization that has, over the years, often claimed to represent the sector as a whole even while it has been dominated by larger nonprofits and foundations. In that role, it has taken on a number of well-funded initiatives that have, over the last few years, consistently failed to advance the sector’s practices. I might suggest that this may long have been baked into the design of that organization.
Indeed, in 2005, when IS was in the midst of one of those initiatives, NPQ ran an article by Scott Harshbarger wherein he charged leadership groups in the sector with “ragging the puck”—assuming the ultimate defensive posture by always trying to run down the clock on any attempts at sectoral reform, particularly of philanthropy. Then and now, these efforts at delaying in the face of opportunities to progress get cloaked in “leadership” language that implies the organization is taking action. Reports are issued, numbers with no meaning made are presented, and nothing really much changes except that a lot of money that might be useful elsewhere is spent.
The mission of IS, by the way, is to support civil society, not the nonprofit sector per se, but this is the ultimate contradiction: The report reveals a calcified view of a civil society that has been institutionalized. And that institutionalization is a lens that’s used over and over, even when communities and movements are already miles down the road, giving due consideration to where complacency in the face of oligarchy, ever-worsening inequality, and longstanding structural racism has brought our democratic life.
This is what’s most disturbing about the latest Independent Sector report. It’s a bid to save frameworks and institutions rather than change them—and that, right now, is not leadership.
NPQ took IS on earlier this year when it released the findings of a survey it undertook in conjunction with its DC lobbying firm, Washington Council. Therein, it characterized nonprofits with staffs between 500 and 5,000 and with budgets that averaged $80 million annually as “mid-sized.” But the portion of US nonprofits with budgets on that scale is minuscule and could never be characterized as mid-sized. Don’t take it from us; Candid shows that more than 66 percent of nonprofits function on budgets less than $1 million. In addition, the survey itself was tiny, capturing only 110 responses.
The survey’s design was clearly built, as one could note from the then-current lobbying efforts of IS, around making a point about the PPP forgivability needs of larger organizations in terms of stimulus dollars. It was, in other words, a manipulation, and therefore an affront to the concept of credible data at a time where the credibility of such data was important to protect in pursuing a strong policy agenda.
This incident suggests that two things are true: IS has not really abandoned its primary accountability to large organizations, including its own funders and board members, and IS does not respect research enough to do it or present it in a fair and even-handed way. We are only making this point because we see in the report itself that IS has mixed into its recommendations (purportedly drawn from the research presented) an oft-repeated suggestion that it be funded as the central holder of a national survey project, a job which it clearly is not up to. Here’s how that came across:
- “It is important for…practitioner organizations, to request funders cover the real costs associated with an annual survey of a nationally representative sample of nonprofits.…[I]n the future, Independent Sector anticipates releasing…a comprehensive annual report.” (p.31)
- Under “Data Recommendations for Financial Resources”: “1) The sector needs to create a representative, annual survey of nonprofits….3) Annual, nationally representative research and analysis.” (p.10)
- Under “Data Recommendations for Governance and Trust”: “1) The sector needs a sustained, annual assessment… 2)…therefore, the sector would benefit from a nationally representative survey of nonprofit organizations and their board members.” (p.19)
- Under “Data Recommendations for Public Policy & Advocacy”: “1)…The sector needs a nationally representative survey of nonprofits.” (p.24)
It is with no artifice that the report concludes, “Independent Sector is committing…to producing a data-infused report of increasing quality….” (p.32)
This isn’t the first time IS has confused a so-called study with a campaign to get itself funded. We would direct readers to an article we published by NCRP’s Aaron Dorfman, “Study about Nonprofit Advocac