If We Could Build the Nonprofit Sector from Scratch, What Would It Look Like?

Last year I had the opportunity of working with an NGO effort in Trinidad and Tobago to launch an organization that would build the capacity of NGOs.

Last year I had the opportunity of working with an NGO effort in Trinidad and Tobago. (It is always tough having to take on a consulting job in a sunny Caribbean country, but someone had to do it…) I was working on behalf of a philanthropic organization to help launch an organization that would train and build the capacity of NGOs in the tiny country. Trinidad’s NGO sector is formally just several years old and the growth in the number of organizations has exploded during that time. An invigorating part of the engagement was leading discussions about how to help and advance the sector so early in its life. We had conversations about whether to create an NGO management graduate program, a national registry like GuideStar, a guide for national accountability standards like Charity Navigator, or an association that would advocate on behalf of NGO’s to the government like Independent Sector.

Reflecting on that work, I recently began to think about the nonprofit sector in the United States and what it would be like if our situation were like Trinidad’s. What if we could start the American nonprofit sector all over again—what would we change or re-do? What would we create? I had a couple of thoughts:

Redesign the government-nonprofit relationship. Since 2001, as the sector has grown, federal and state governments have become increasingly involved in the nonprofit sector. During this time, government has developed an often unfair and uninformed relationship with nonprofits—nonprofits have been victimized politically, have been treated unfairly in governmental contract relations, and have little say in legislation but are slated to play a major role in its implementation. The main reason for this is that both sides are unsure about how they can help each other. I think many would welcome the chance to sit down and recast this relationship.

Rethink nonprofit tax designations. I am not a tax specialist, but I have seen a number of efforts to create nonprofits or social ventures using something other than “501c___”. Some think the nonprofit tax code is confining, and that it has confused or thwarted business and new efforts to conduct nonprofit work. I am sure this is just scratching the surface, but imagine if we scrapped the current code and started anew.  What would a new nonprofit tax code look like?

Improve nonprofit leadership education. A huge percentage of current nonprofit leaders will be retiring soon. Over the last decade, there has been an explosion in the number of graduate and certificate programs related to nonprofit leadership. Is the sector more professionalized? Are new leaders ready to manage our organizations? I’m not sure, but if the sector was just beginning, how would we calibrate leadership development?

Recast organizations and services in light of globalization. In the nonprofit arena, globalization is often a new concept. Last year, I wrote about how some US nonprofits are hiring employees who work remotely from countries like South America and India. If we could start over, how much would we consider and organize around the influence of globalization?

I am not suggesting that the nonprofit sector as a whole is not great—in fact, I think it is the best of the three. I also understand that many of the movements and innovations within the sector have happened as a result of addressing a challenge—for example, failed nonprofit efforts and wasted funding has caused increased focus on impact and outcomes. But what if the US nonprofit sector was just starting out? I often ask organizations this question when I am helping them develop a strategic plan. If the sector were an organization that could strategically plan for itself, what would we re-do or change? What would we create?

I am interested in your thoughts.

image Dr. John Brothers is the principal of Cuidiu Consulting and a senior fellow at the Support Center for Nonprofit Management. He teaches social policy at Rutgers University and nonprofit management at New York University. Dr. Brothers is the co-author of Building Nonprofit Capacity, which will be published in October 2011 by Jossey-Bass.

Read more stories by John Brothers.

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  • Patricia Sinay, Community Investment Strategies's avatar

    BY Patricia Sinay, Community Investment Strategies

    ON August 29, 2011 11:10 AM

    Great thought provoking question: what would we do differently? My first instinct would be to go back to reasons why we created an independent sector and its impact on our civil society.  As I understand it, the purpose was to be independent from the other sectors (business and government); to be a counterweight to these sectors; to allow individuals to have a greater voice by joining associations; to help each other out (Tocqueville, Gardner, and O’Connell). Much of this has been lost as the sector has become more and more of a service sector based on needs and not on vision of better communities (John McKnight’s professionalization of care).  As the SSRI blog posted last week it is important for the whole sector to advocate for immigration reform because it affects all of us.  Those we serve are not our clients, but our constituents.  This is a fact often forgotten because someone else is “paying” the bill, and the community served is often not the community governing and managing the organization.

    About 15 years ago, with Partners of the Americas I was part of several convenings in Trinidad and Tobago that focused in building their civil society.  I was struck by the number of associations and individuals that were promoting civil society in the Caribbean and how well they were working with their partners in the United States. It saddens me a bit to see that they may be following our new model of becoming a contractor of the state versus and voice and a problem solver of the community.

    I guess if we could do something differently, it would be to go back to the real purpose of the sector and to become community problem solvers and a collective voice.

  • BY Thaler Pekar

    ON August 29, 2011 11:55 AM

    Terrific and thoughtful post, John, thank you. I also worked with a nonprofit in Trindad and Tobago last year, and I was invigorated by the energy, vision, and optimism of the advocates I met there. You’ve articulated ways to harness that energy and overcome an all-too-often staidness.

  • BY Subhasis Sahoo

    ON August 29, 2011 10:36 PM

    Dear John it has been a great idea .Today all ngos need to resize their management structures and operate it with people who have expertise.In india where NGO’s have been doing multitasking jobs on like projects,microfinance,charity,education ,health care the vision of the ngo is not focused .they are looking at revenue aspects .The leadership transistion process is not planned correctly and which may lead to confusion.This is major aspect where micro,small and medium ngos need to rework their strategy for leadership and manpower structure.

  • BY Peter Lanc - Corte Leadership and Communications

    ON August 30, 2011 06:49 AM

    You would need a new vision and clearly articulated operational mission. You would dream your path in a commercial business mind set. You would get rid of duplication and hire professional business people. You would have to change the old way of thinking and build new relationships.

    I did it….

  • BY Deborah Z. Altschuler National Pediculosis Associ

    ON August 30, 2011 07:18 AM

    Patricia Sinay says it well:  “I guess if we could do something differently, it would be to go back to the real purpose of the sector and to become community problem solvers and a collective voice.”

    The American nonprofit sector too often looks like the tax-exempt marketing arm of industry.  This becomes a bigger concern when nonprofits take leadership roles in setting public policy.  Nonprofits in the policy-making arena should be fully transparent with their policy statements.  Anything less becomes more marketing, a detriment to the public trust and a defeat to the purpose of the nonprofit designation. 

    Our organization recently participated in the meeting of the Stockholm Convention in Geneva.  It was phenomenal to see and be with so many NGOs from all over the world working together for a common goal to protect human health and the environment.

  • BY Daniel Bassill

    ON August 30, 2011 08:23 AM

    Thanks for the discussion John. I agree with Patricia who suggested we focus on “community problem solvers and a collective voice”.

    To me that means we need to not just educate a new wave of non profit leaders but we also need to educate people who don’t go into what we call the non profit sector, but how need to be involved in many ways to solve the problems that face the planet.  When volunteers and donors are proactive in seeking organizations to support and make long-term commitments to problem solving that may take decades to reach impact we will have moved a major step toward a more effective operating system. When NPOs use their web site to show what they do, why they do it, who they learn from, and to connect and share ideas with peers volunteers and donors will have more information to use for their own involvement-decisions.

    The non profit sector is based on a competition for resources and that forces a lack of collective action and a poor distribution of needed services in most parts of the world, as well as poor growth of human capital and experience in organizations where knowledge and experience are the greatest potential assets.  This competition works in the market place because the market only needs a few companies to produce certain products that can be distributed throughout the world. However, poverty is in many places and thousands of like-kinded organizations need to be in those places, each doing world-class work.  A better operating system would lower the costs of acquiring resources and do more to improve the distribution.

    Changing tax codes in ways that provide more ways to generate needed revenue would be helpful but changing the way leaders, advertisers and politicians use their visibility to draw volunteers and donors to social sector organizations is just as important.

    I don’t know how we’d start over but I’ve spent the past 20 years thinking of better ways to support programs in multiple locations and outlining ideas of what I feel would make a small slice of the sector more effective at helping poor kids expand their networks of support. I share these ideas at

    Yet I’m constantly frustrated when I talk with people in government who say “that’s not possible” and “I know we don’t have the resources we need do do good work and we don’t have holistic plans that can be sustained over a decade or more… but we’ve got a RFP in place and we can’t change that momentum.” 

    The ideas I propose may not seem possible, but not making massive changes to the system means we’ll probably be facing the same problems we face now in 20-30 years.

    I feel that forums like this and the potential of the Internet for thousands of people to connect and share ideas offers the greatest potential that some day we will find investors and leaders who will help us create a “better operating system” for how our sector supports the work it has responsibility for.

  • BY Jennifer Lentfer

    ON August 30, 2011 08:31 AM

    In my own field of international development aid, I agree that we need practitioners who care about ownership and that means we all need to create more “what if” moments for ourselves to explore ideas and possibilities to make this principle into a reality. See the related post on my blog:

  • Okiror Samuel, ED Peoples' Interventions Worldwide's avatar

    BY Okiror Samuel, ED Peoples' Interventions Worldwide

    ON August 30, 2011 10:16 AM

    Dear New friend,

    This is an inspiring brief. I have just started an NGO as named above ; I am backed by 2 Anglican Bishops and 8 highly placed development practitioners.  I am an Economist of 46 yrs of age and just exited from an executive job I held for 17 yrs of my career. Now I am caught up in a new organization- how to proceed and attain our mission; reaching out to the poor in Uganda. Please, let us remain connected to share all such briefs and other development resources.

    Thank you.


  • BY Jim Hyatt, Vescelius Hyatt, Inc.

    ON August 30, 2011 11:03 AM

    1. Shift the focus from pursuing the mission to completing the mission. It’s not what we do but why we do it. Every social service NPO then has the goal of putting itself out of business, of ending the problem. Mission statements generally talk in terms of activity. They describe what we do. They seldom describe what the result or outcome looks like. What does successful accomplishment of the mission look like? Would we know it if we saw it? Instill that mindset in every new NPO from the E.D. on down.

    2. Know how to distinguish customers/clients from owners/constituents. They are not the same and the confusion is costly. NPOs who confuse the distinction do not know who they are accountable to or for what. On whose behalf does the organization exist? What voice do they have in deciding what the organization intends to accomplish?

    Many clients or customers or beneficiaries are also owner/constituents. How do you separate these two parts in one person? Each part has different needs and voices to be heard and the NPO needs the skill to know how to talk to each.

    3. Instill more of a business mindset in the NPO. What is the market analysis? Are there redundancies? Overlapping missions? Overlapping funding requests to accomplish the same or similar ends? Where are the opportunities for strategic alliances with other organizations, for profit, non-profit or governmental, that will create a more effective response to the need and solve it sooner? Should we merge with another organization, or separate ourselves from the current organizational structure? What criteria would we use to make that decision? Does our strategic plan follow our ends, or does the tail wag the dog?

    4. A clear understanding of the role each part of the NPO plays. Do we expect the old ‘wealth, work and wisdom’ from our board or something else? Does the board have its own criteria for effectiveness separate and apart from management and the mission? How does it distinguish itself from the role of management and hold management accountable? Or are the lines blurred, leading to confusion of roles, micromanagement, loss of accountability and frustration?

    At every level, from the board through the CEO to the various levels of management, is it understood how to create effective expectations of performance and monitor their fulfillment? Does every employee understand what he or she is there to accomplish and how that fits into the overall plan of accomplishment so that every effort is bent toward the result rather than today’s activity? Does accountability begin at the individual level and lead to organizational accountability?

  • Mazhar Monis Shadow-pak's avatar

    BY Mazhar Monis Shadow-pak

    ON September 3, 2011 03:08 AM

    Request for partnership

  • Donovan McLaren  Executive Director   Kevoy Commun's avatar

    BY Donovan McLaren Executive Director Kevoy Commun

    ON September 3, 2011 07:51 PM

    KCDI is pleased to know that our regional brother in the NGO sector were afforded your expertise in the areas of Capacity Building. May I suggest that you visit the IDB website.  There are several project documents available to which one can draw reference as it relate to Capacity Building, Organizational strengthining Project Planning ect.

    Jamaica has contributed significantly to this website re projects and programmes. There are also programmes which are Caribbean in nature. KCDI having conducted regional projects of this nature would galdy offer any assistance as may be required.

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