Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

The nonprofit intelligentsia frequently muses on whether the term “nonprofit” is the appropriate name for the sector, how we can improve the sector’s “branding,” and whether and how to embrace for-profit companies that want to “do good.”

But too often we leave unexamined some deeper questions of self-identity and aspiration. This essay addresses two linked concerns: professionalization as the dominant ethos of the nonprofit sector and the emergence of the “Philanthropic Beltway”—the overgrown infrastructure that stands between philanthropy and those who might want to speak directly to them. It is an argument for a sector identity deeply rooted in volunteerism, democracy, and democratic movements led by those affected by issues rather those who have become certified, paid experts in those issues.

Aspirin for management headaches

The last 35 years have seen an overwhelming change in nonprofits and identity, shifting from self-identification around cause and activism to a sector that sees itself—and insists on being seen—as a sector of paid professionals.

An unintentional consequence of this focus on professionalism is the invisibility and dismissal of the all-volunteer nonprofits. Many people are aware that a large percentage of registered nonprofits do not have staff. In California, for instance, 65 percent of 501(c)(3) nonprofits have no paid staff. Those of us at staffed nonprofits (including foundations) typically dismiss or condescend to the all-volunteer organizations—at the peril of our whole community.

Several years ago, I was part of a research team that conducted focus groups with all-volunteer organizations (AVOs), such as the fuchsia society, a mandolin orchestra, a Harley Davidson club, and an ethnic history research group. Perhaps the most telling—and damning—finding was that when we asked, “What kind of group are you?”, they universally answered, “Well, we don't have any staff so we're not a nonprofit.”

AVOs, scale, and credibility

What nonprofit organization serves more people with substance abuse issues than any other? Answer: The all-volunteer Alcoholics Anonymous, with 400 meetings per week in the city of San José, California, alone. What San Francisco nonprofit serves 400 children twice a week? The all-volunteer Vikings Soccer League. When we consider impact in substance abuse and youth development, we severely handicap our thinking by overlooking such efforts.

And in public policy, Big Agriculture knows to put family farms rather than agribusiness in front in legislatures and in the court of public opinion. But somehow we in the nonprofit community—a sector composed of family farms—want to be seen as Big Charity, touting MBAs and investment banker salaries, and “productivity” driven by minimum-wage workers.

This drive for professionalization has paralleled astronomical growth in the nonprofit sector, fueled by government funding (most notably the War on Poverty and its successors) and the entrance of baby boomers into the labor market. We baby boomers were anti-war activists, women's rights activists, and Third World Liberation activists. Today, we would be known as volunteers. As we started and grew organizations with the new influx of government money, we struggled with human resources, financial management, and insurance.

But if we were seeking aspirin for these management headaches, we are now suffering from aspirin poisoning, and we've passed on the affliction to the next generations. Today's Generation X and millennial nonprofit leaders “get” management. But good management is insufficient for effective nonprofit action. In contrast to baby boomer activists, the new executive directors can write personnel policies and grant proposals while practicing self-care, but they don't know how to get 5,000 people to a protest demonstration or 50 parents to a city council meeting. In short: They have overlooked aspects of democratic leadership.

As we have professionalized the sector, we have lost track of the heart of the nonprofit movement: democracy and volunteerism.

The new Philanthropic Beltway

The sector’s current “professional experts know best” attitude is particularly pronounced in philanthropy. Foundations—inherently institutions of the elite— not only have become more expert-driven, but also have created an industry of expert consultants and advisors to themselves.

“Inside the Beltway” refers to the federal government's isolation from the general population. Although the “beltway” originally meant the highway that circles Washington, DC, it has come to describe the lobbyists, consultants, think tanks, and media that encircle the White House and Congress, creating their own weather, echo chamber, and ivory tower (to mix as many metaphors as possible).

Likewise, an astonishing array of consultants and advisors to philanthropy has grown up around foundations and donors, a Philanthropic Beltway that isolates foundations from the rest of the nonprofit community, not to mention the movements and people who don't speak in the language of professionals. Although numbers are hard to find, many would agree that the Philanthropic Beltway today is growing faster than any other sub-sector. For example, typically one-third or more of speakers at philanthropy conferences are consultants to foundations, while fewer than 5 percent are direct providers (in the arts, for example, a theatre company is a direct provider).

And it's nearly impossible to know how much foundation funding goes to consultants and researchers that support the foundation itself. Foundations can include such expenses in their 5 percent spend-out requirement and expend them in a variety of ways—as grants to re-grantors, as “expenditure control” contracts with for-profit firms, and as straightforward contracts with entities.

But it doesn't take long in the nonprofit sector to see the omnipresent, highly paid, well-educated consultants advising foundations and—on the foundations' dimes—telling nonprofits what to do as well. Individuals with degrees from elite universities cycle from consulting firms to foundations to think tanks and back again. Foundations lean heavily on research they have commissioned and on field experts and philanthropy consultants, rather than on nonprofit experience in the field and people trying to find a link between theory and the family in front of them. They learn about nonprofits through other foundations—“coffee klatch due diligence” as one grantmaker has said. This Philanthropic Beltway creates a filter between foundations and nonprofits, which already act as a filter between communities and foundations.

It is the analog of the management-centric paradigm among nonprofits. Both promote professionalism and expertise as the best ways to identify problems, craft solutions, and implement strategies. In human service nonprofits, “client engagement” too often is nothing more than prettified customer feedback. In philanthropy—where equity is the new flavor of the day—funding equity too often means not much more than funding research, convenings, and dialog with other foundations, consultants, and a few carefully chosen nonprofits.

Remembering democracy

Democracy—if we still believe in it—gives respect and authority to non-experts. We believe that any citizen can run for office, not just those who are well born or well educated. We believe that non-professionals can vote. We believe in civilian control of the military.

Movements—in contrast to foundation initiatives—come from those who are most directly affected by a problem. Successful movements often gain moral and financial support from the elites, but they aren't directed or led by experts. They continue to evolve in turbulent, sometimes chaotic, sometimes fractured ways, but democracy is often like that.

Let's stop insisting that we are a sector of experts and professionals. Let's reclaim the phrase “volunteer sector.” Let's see ourselves in service to democratic movements, rather than as leaders and researchers of those movements. Our country, our communities, our earth—and yes, our nonprofit sector too—are at risk if we don't.