Thursday, February 26, 2009

Stimulus Stimulates Some Tension

These past few weeks have been full of interesting commentary and analyses of the nonprofit sector’s place in the just-approved stimulus package. As is the case with these kinds of negotiations, it appears that there are a few organizations that are very happy about them and a few that are disappointed, but most of the rest are somewhere in between. And while it’s been a foil for some much-needed grappling with where our sector “fits” in the larger scheme of things, it’s also raised some tensions that, to some, could use some airing.

The first is the “big versus little” nonprofit debate. Todd Cohen, in Philanthropy Journal, has arguably been the most vocal on this issue (see post below, “Where’s The Nonprofit Agenda?”), but there are others out there (you know who you are) that are disgruntled at what they see as a power grab by groups that have the resources to get in front of legislators with their interests. And most of those are the “big organizations,” they say, that don’t comprise the bulk of the sector.

The second is the “service versus larger nonprofit sector” debate. There are some folks in the sector who perceive a smaller cohort of organizations—specifically, the organizations that benefit from national service funding through Americorps—“co-opting” or driving what they believe should be a much larger agenda. Because the service organizations are extremely well organized, politically savvy, and have the wind of previous Americorps/national service funding and Congressional support behind them, they are front and center in discussions about the Obama administration’s plans for a new White House Office on Social Innovation, as well as increased funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service. That’s raised the hackles of community-based and local nonprofits, particularly ones that are providing direct services to some of the country’s most underserved populations, and that tend to have limited access to powerful members of Congress.

The third is the “social entrepreneurs versus the traditional nonprofits.” (See post directly below this one…)

The fourth is the “MBAs versus the non-MBAs.” During the past decade, there has been a palpable infusion of business-oriented approaches, thinking, and concepts into the nonprofit sector. To some, this has been a welcome and much-needed breath of fresh air that has nudged some nonprofits (and funders) out of their complacency and view that “doing God’s work” is enough to validate their existence. It’s also helped to advance new ways of thinking about (and doing) management, evaluation, benchmarking, and strategic planning.

Others, however, have eyed these developments warily and been alarmed by what they perceive as arrogance and/or presumptions about business-oriented approaches as being superior. The penchant of the business types to throw a lot of terms around that only they understand only adds to the resentment among nonprofits not steeped in business lingo. And where’s the reciprocity? When’s the last time you heard of a private sector company asking a nonprofit organization to “help them” become more “nonprofit-like”? Is there nothing that the nonprofit sector might provide to the private sector as a “value added”?

Some people have dismissed the above as “exaggerated” and/or that believe that because “the sector is too diverse” to prevent these kinds of disagreements, we should just accept them. There’s some truth to that, of course, but there’s also a bit of a cop out behind it (the “why try since it’ll never work anyway?” view). Diversity can produce challenges to finding common ground, but I’m not convinced that those challenges are sufficient reason to give up trying. Unless we honestly acknowledge these kinds of issues and the assumptions (or biases) behind them , it will be impossible to find any kind of solidarity as a larger sector whose overarching purpose is fairly clear. And as times get even tougher, that solidarity will become even more important.

Perhaps it’s time for some of the folks who are able to see the big picture, as well as all sides of these contentious issues, to serve as emissaries who can pull together representatives of the various camps for more conversation or attend meetings of various subsectors groups to learn more about what each is doing and, ultimately, help identify areas of commonality that could be fed back into a larger conversation and action plan. The good news is that some leaders of these subsector groups are starting to do just that, and that bodes well for the sector, I believe, over the long term.

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