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.

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