When I graduated from college in 2001, there were extremely limited career options for those folks who wanted to devote their professional lives to making the world a better place. You could work for some government agency, such as the public school system or a department dedicated to social services, or you could work at a nonprofit organization. At that time, corporate social responsibility and social enterprise were not part of the mainstream conversation.
My, how the times have changed! Corporations have not only added arms to their organizations seeking to advance some social good, but some have even incorporated this thinking into the core of their operations. Furthermore, social entrepreneurs are exploring new models for social change, thinking far beyond the constraints of the traditional 501(c)3 model. Furthermore, many nonprofits have started to rethink the way that they operate, seeking to develop revenue-generating arms and lessen their dependence on charitable giving.
It is certainly a fascinating time in the broader social change arena, and I do believe we are only scratching the surface at the tremendous opportunity with these innovations. That said, I often wonder what the role of nonprofits will be, given that an agenda for social good is now being more broadly adopted. We’ve lost our monopoly on social good, which will inevitably impact the perception of our importance.
This challenge facing the sector is further exacerbated by the funding challenges facing government. People are questioning whether the tax benefits enjoyed by our sector are worth continuing, particularly as states and local governments continue to face declining revenues. An “Eeyore” response, lamenting this discussion in light of the great history of nonprofits is simply put insufficient. Trying to defend programs that don’t work with excuses about a lack of resources will no longer pass muster.
I believe that the nonprofit sector can continue to play a vital role in advancing equity and social justice. However, I think it is imperative that people at all levels step up and claim a leadership role in the future of social change. As a sector, we should not only embrace change as it comes, but market ourselves as a source of innovation. We have immense intellectual property and unique stakeholder engagement capabilities; we must bring these to the table and define our future role in social change.
It is too easy today for folks to push aside the nonprofit sector, putting more weight on the sector’s legacy than its future. Let us all work to make sure that our sector is top of mind as experts discuss “what’s next” – the stakes are too high to take the backseat and watch what unfolds.