La Piana Consulting recently embarked on a bold new initiative, funded by Fieldstone Alliance and the James Irvine Foundation, to explore the future of the nonprofit sector and we invite you to join the conversation.
Where will you take nonprofits next? Read the report, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, and tell us what you think at our blog.
The goals of this research project are to enable the nonprofit sector to better understand what trends will have the greatest impact on the sector’s structure, activities, and leadership over the next five to ten years, and spark a dialogue about the future of the sector.
In difficult economic times, how will the generational shift, new technologies, the desire to build community, the increasing permeability of the very concept of “nonprofit,” and the redefinition of the workplace combine to transform the nonprofit sector?
Working with funders and sector thought leaders, La Piana Consulting plans an initiative to explore both key trends and creative, promising responses to them. This effort will lead to the creation of a provocative and thoughtful monograph and supportive web content, which will in turn spark a discussion about the future across the sector. The major trends we will consider in this research include, but are not limited to:
- Generational Shift: The aging of the baby boomers enables younger leaders to step into key roles as experienced leaders move on or redefine their roles. As this shift slowly unfolds, the generations will need to work together for many years to come. Beginning immediately, however, nonprofits will need to adapt in order to engage younger supporters. Our recent strategy work with groups such as Sierra Club, ACLU, and Amnesty International, has demonstrated the fading appeal of traditional conceptions of membership. Important causes need to reinvent themselves as “networks” to retain or grow their membership levels.
- Economic/Political Uncertainty: This recession is more than a deep down-turn; it presents in many ways a fundamental shift. After 28 years of anti-government rhetoric leading to a smaller government, the new role of Washington, D.C. as backstop and investor of last resort will increase public recognition of the important role of the public sector. The nation’s swing to the right may be at an end. If Obama succeeds in navigating this economic crisis, a generational swing to a prolonged, more liberal era may be at hand.
- Technology and Networking: Web 2.0 social networking presents a non-hierarchical, non-controlled, still-evolving, and thus not yet fully understood format for connectivity among nonprofit workers and activists, and between the sector and its constituents. This technology is a game-changer for everything from fundraising to community organizing to staff recruitment.
- Diversity: The 2008 Presidential election turned attention to race, gender, ethnicity, and the larger topic of cultural competence – how we manage difference – in ways unimagined just a year earlier. A door has been opened, and it is up to the nonprofit sector to walk through it, leading a new national dialogue on difference.
- Nonprofit Boundaries: Traditional sector boundaries are evaporating. Corporate leaders now head major foundations; businesses develop nonprofit subsidiaries; socially responsible corporations seek “B-Corp” and “L3C” status; investment houses aggressively compete with community foundations for donor-directed funds; nonprofits develop fee-for-service programs; regulations that once preserved human services as an exclusive nonprofit domain are falling; local governments question the value nonprofits provide to the community; and Washington asks if nonprofits that do not help the poor deserve tax exempt status or deductibility of gifts.
- Virtual Work: Concerns over unstable oil prices, high downtown rents, rising greenhouse gases, and the quality-of-life impact of long commutes from the suburbs, combined with the possibilities offered by fast Internet connections, high-quality video conferencing, affordable all-in-one printer-scanner-fax-copiers, and hosted intranets, make “virtual workplaces” an appealing alternative for many organizations – particularly nonprofits, which traditionally have less money to spend on infrastructure anyway. Office culture is on the wane. What will we lose by not meeting around the water cooler, and how will we replace it?
These dynamics provide a wide spectrum of opportunities for innovation. Currently other groups, such as the Next Generation Leadership Forum, are focusing on next generation leadership issues; Craigslist Foundation and Idealist, among many others, are doing exciting work on applications of Web 2.0 to the nonprofit sector; and a wide range of groups is trying to advance a national dialogue on difference. What is not being attended to, and yet will be of critical importance to the sector over the next ten years, is the confluence of all these issues.
We believe the next decade will bring new leaders, new technologies, new structures, and new partnerships. It will bring new, well-capitalized competitors who will cross the sector boundary into traditional nonprofit work. It will also bring new donor demands for accountability and evidence of impact if nonprofits are to maintain their tenuous hold on identity as a sector, and not just become under-capitalized competitors in an increasingly crowded and sector-blind blended economy. One key to success in this environment will be a collective rethinking of what it means to be an organization, what we mean by “workplace,” and what it means to both compete and partner across many permeable boundaries. These issues affect the business sector as well as nonprofits, but the latter is uniquely suited to experiment with positive solutions.
This transformation will not be optional. Just as the day has nearly passed when nonprofits are viewed as “charities,” so too will the current conceptualization of nonprofits as “institutions” and perhaps even as “organizations” give way. Many top nonprofit brands will instead operate through and be known primarily as networks. Even those that maintain institutional cohesion will be organized to a far greater degree around shifting coalitions, online activism, and a mobile workforce, using volunteers with day jobs in unrelated fields to replace many staff functions.
In this changing world, the current modes that funders use to advance their missions, and the traditional approaches that capacity builders employ to strengthen nonprofits, will fall short. That this is the challenge, we are certain, but no one knows today where it will lead or how the sector can best respond.
These principles will guide the entire initiative, as we foster an ongoing dialogue on the future among key change leaders, both established and emerging; as we engage innovators to tell their stories to the rest of the sector; and as we help make sense of what it all means for our collective future.