The Nonprofit Sector aka My Former Life

July 31, 2014

I walked away from the nonprofit sector six months ago, after almost 20 years of pretty intense involvement/engagement. Working with charitable organizations was my non-working, non-family life. (I chaired four boards and the United Way Tocqueville Society, helped create Social Venture Partners Tucson, shut down one organization, tried to start a training institute, and served on many, many committees, task forces, etc. I also raised some money for good causes.)

Why did I walk away? I was tired and, at least in my own mind, had become ineffective. I left with plenty of anxieties about how I would fill my time—enter Mark Rubin Writes—and what would become of my relationships, but I knew for sure it was time to go. (By the way, August 1 is an imprecise six-month anniversary and I still do a bit of work—really very little—with a great local group, Literacy Connects.)

Six months have passed, I have a clear head, and I have stuff I want to share. First, I was blessed to work among extraordinary people. Almost everyone who works for nonprofits for pay gives up lots of earning power. These people work hard, they’re smart and kind, and working with them gave me great satisfaction.

Then there are the volunteers. Without them—whether they are leaders, direct service providers, or those who act in both capacities—we don’t have a nonprofit sector. Committed, caring people, giving of themselves!

And donors. There are always other ways to spend money, really! The notion that people give their money to others, just because, represents something pretty extraordinary. So thank you all for all you do!

We live in amazing times in the world of philanthropy and community problem-solving. As our political class provides more and more reasons why no sane person should ever serve in office, the nonprofit sector has reached new heights when it comes to creative methods for solving problems. For example, collective impact provides a methodology for bringing groups together around solving a “big deal” problem like education or poverty. Not easy or simple, and certainly not cheap, but it works. (The link comes from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, a Holy Place for cutting-edge thinking.)

For many years the sector evaluated entities for donors not by looking at measurable outcomes. Instead, they used overhead as a benchmark. Low = good (and give); high = bad (and don’t give). Never mind the fact that no standard measures for defining overhead exists, that service and non-service providers have very different economic models, or that we usually get what we pay for, which means nonprofits with low overhead may be employing not-so-competent people.

In recent years reporting groups like Charity Navigator and GuideStar have changed their models to better reflect what really matters. Dan Pallotta deserves much credit on this issue. Here’s his “it went viral” TED talk.

Other thinkers on these issues—with books worth reading, which I’ll be reviewing soon—are Ken Stern (With Charity for All:  Why Charities are Failing and a Better Way to Give) and Michael Weinstein (The Robin Hood Rules for Smart Giving). Both men presented at the Tucson Festival of Books this past March; they know their stuff! (There are many other fine writers out their on these subjects; I selected these two because I spent time with them and they showed up here!)

Among bloggers, no one I follow makes me laugh more than Vu Le, the director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association and the Chief Cook and Bottle Washer at Nonprofits With Balls. If every organization mandated that every staff person and volunteer read Vu, we’d go a long way toward solving lots of problems.

Many more bright people are engaged, in ways large and small and at all levels. The nonprofit sector is definitely a happening place! And yet … from, on July 18, I read Why Charity Can’t Solve Society’s Deepest Problems by Amy Schiller. Her point? Without the broad consensus we get through the political process, with its give and take and inherent messiness and imperfections, nonprofits may not have the “consent of the governed” which big solutions require. (I worked hard not to get hung up on the reparations frame which Ms. Schiller used to make her point; no one should think the nonprofit sector can take on that issue. )

The nonprofit sector lacks the resources—and any hope for getting them in adequate amounts—to take on and actually solve education, poverty, inequality, etc. With big problems which require more than what people can share from their personal resources, we need buy-in and commitments from the populace, acting through our leaders. In other words, without government it does not happen, and there really are no short cuts or end-arounds!

With these observations I do not question the value of the charitable efforts. Instead, I simply note the fact that if we want to really solve the problems, we cannot make it happen with donations and volunteers, no matter how generous and committed people may be.

In closing, G-d bless those who keep at it with their time, talent, and treasure, for their efforts change lives, one, ten, and, perhaps, one hundred at a time. We should not, however, lose sight of the fact that our problems need resources which will allow us to change lives a thousand, a million, and, perhaps, ten million at a time.

Stay tuned for occasional thoughts on a part of the world for which I still have much affection! Comments certainly welcomed.

P.S.  To readers in the Rothschild clan, I don’t think Mayor Jonathan Rothschild is insane because he holds elective office. Meshuggeneh just a little, but not insane!

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