Re-Inventing the Non Profit Sector

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There’s a lot of talk about reinventing the non-profit sector. A lot of talk about renaming it. Why define it by what it is not? That’s a good point.

Problem is how will we ever agree on a new name? Should it be the Social Profit Sector? Third Sector? Social Economy Sector? Social Benefit Sector? I don’t really know.

Whatever name is settled on, it will be one that evolves, not one that a group of people decide upon. Why?  Because there is no entity called the NonProfit Sector or the Voluntary Sector, just as there is no one entity called the Private Sector. 

Sector descriptions are just that – “collective” descriptions of the various components of society. The three sectors we typically refer to are not separate and distinct as much as they are complementary, dynamic elements of community life.

Can the descriptions change? Can each element take on new characteristics?

Of course.  

But I fear sometimes we are deluding ourselves into thinking there is a thing called a sector that some “body” of people can transform or re-invent or tune-up like an engine.  If collective descriptions were easy to change or reinvent, then we would experience governments who have mastered the “economy.”  “Going green” would be simple and “global warming” something we all would view with like-minds.

Changing the NonProfit Sector is evolutionary. Within its evolution will be a few revolutionary ideas but most of the change ideas will be innovations rolled out over time. Things like shared services, shared office space, social enterprise, and social return on investment will offer up their piece of the pie, but none of them alone (or even together) will signify reinvention. And some of them will fail or at least fall short of the promise we may think they have.

The call of the reinvention of the NonProfit Sector comes to us from voices across all sectors.  For some reason – and I am not sure what it is – there is a convergence of perspective on this, although the motivations are likely different from sector voice to sector voice.

I do think the NonProfit Sector could benefit from a re-think but no more so than the private or government sectors.  That being said, the real need is not for each sector to re-think itself but rather for the community to re-think all of it. And by community, I am referring to the people who both contribute to and benefit from all three sectors.

Somehow sector conversations tend to focus on the institutions of each sector: agencies, art galleries, multicultural centres, oil and gas companies, small businesses, the banks and the various levels and departments of governments.

There are two major problems with this. First, sector dialogs and even more so sector change initiatives that are focused on institutional issues and perspectives do not automatically translate into being a good thing for people.  Second, the divisions we have created through our language about sectors are frequently more limiting than enabling. 

The first point is fairly straightforward. For any organization or government to survive if not thrive it must operate with a certain measure of self-interest.  And we all know that even the best of organizations or governments will, at times, choose their self-interest over the interests of their customers or constituents.

It’s the second point I want to focus on.  Language is often simultaneously inclusive and exclusive.  For example, if I am a progressive conservative, I am part of that cluster of people, but also excluded from other clusters that identify themselves as social democrats, liberals, or other political labels.

Our division of community life into sectors creates confusion sometimes. For example, we will state the obvious differences such as  the private sector’s measure of success is “profit” and the non profit sector’s measure of success is…. well, something else. This one is tougher but we usually say something like “quality of life” or “common good” or some other term that while more inspired (at least to me) than “profit” are more difficult to pin down as to their meaning.

We will also say stuff like: “non-profits should be more like businesses.” Just what that means is dependent on who is doing the talking. Folks who come over to the nonprofit sector from business tend to be frustrated by the differences they experience. One recent crossover told me the non-profit sector spends too much time figuring things out, acts too slowly, and rehashes the same old issues over and over. “That wouldn’t happen in the for-profit sector,” she said.

Really?  So all of the issues being grappled with today by the private sector are new ones? I didn’t know that. I should pay more attention.  

Sarcasm aside, yes there are lessons to be learned from the private sector and the other way around as well. But debating about who should be more like whom can become a tad silly unless the dialog is about building on one another’s strengths and helping one another overcome obstacles to community progress. 

In the past few months I have heard more than a few  voices calling for the sector to figure out who it is and wants to be and how important it is that the sector do that on its own, without government stepping in to figure it out for “them.” While I don’t think anyone in the NonProfit Sector imagines a government doing  that for them, I find the perspective troubling. It’s as if the NonProfit Sector has actually done things all on its own to create its own identity issues.  Oh, don’t get me wrong. Sector leaders bear responsibility for the successes and shortcomings of the sector, but the environment in which the NonProfit Sector works is one that is caused and perpetuated by all sectors. If the economy is poor, it impacts everyone. When the government downloads services onto Nonprofit organizations, it impacts the community’s capacity to thrive.

None of the sectors are independent of one another. I am sure you have heard the three legged stool analogy – that each of the three sectors is a leg of the stool. Lose one and everything collapses. It is a decent metaphor until we start pointing to one of the legs and say, “reinvent yourself.”  I would suggest insular transformation could topple everything as well.

I am going to be writing more about this. Stay tuned.

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