I’m concerned about nonprofits. Are they aware of the threats they face?

Are they prepared to demonstrate their value in the face of changes in corporate and tax law, and, as importantly, changes in the cultural zeitgeist about social capital markets and social enterprise?

For almost a century, 501c3 nonprofits have held a privileged place in our communities and in our tax code. They are provided tax exempt status, and supporters can deduct their contributions to these organizations from their income taxes. In so doing, the US tax code privileges these organizations - from major hospitals and universities to small neighborhood groups - as providers of social goods and contributors to civil society.

Those privileges are being challenged from numerous directions. Let me list just a few:

  • New corporate forms that recognize social businesses (these are modifications to the corporate codes at state levels - L3Cs, B Corporations, proposed H corporation);
  • Tax credits for social businesses;
  • Foundations’ increasing interest in “sector agnostic” approaches to solving social problems;
  • Regulatory concern about good governance, payout rates, and endowment growth over charitable purpose;
  • Social investment exchanges that are expanding the revenue and capital streams to financial/social hybrids (not necessarily to nonprofits);
  • Growth of models for social goods/civil society that emphasize operating foundations or social enterprises more than a nonprofit framework (everywhere but USA).

Each of the innovations above has advantages and disadvantages and none may be explicitly targeted at putting nonprofits out of business. Most of the hybrid forms are promoted as expansions of the social sector.  The fervent interest in social investment exchanges and mission related investing or impact investing are also seen as new revenue sources to good. Note, however, that these are effectively ways of expanding the pools of social good providers and social good financing, effectively increasing the pool around nonprofits, not working to strengthen, support or expand financing to them.

What we are experiencing is a confluence of forces, each of which may have merit independently, but which collectively challenge our current framework (policies, mental models. and financing systems) for where civil society and social goods come from.

Who provides them, who finances them, and how are they distributed?

Michael Edwards’ new book, Small Change, which challenges the currently en vogue market model, comes closest to raising these questions.  And conferences on regulation, discussions of technological innovations, and celebrations of innovations and changing ecosystems contribute to the broad awareness of options.

But who is working on these big questions in pragmatic ways? Who is looking at what nonprofits do best, what social enterprises and social businesses contribute, and what roles government can and must play? Who is looking out for the whole? Or even looking at the intersections, not all of which are complementary or positive, of these many pieces?

Currently, most of the innovation in the sector is around the edges of our existing corporate and tax frameworks - we are developing “workarounds” to the 501c3 or commercial corporate model to encourage social entrepreneurs and new investors or donors.

The preponderance of these workarounds should have been our first clue - it is time to reconsider the entirety of the systems and policies for the production, financing and distribution of social goods and civil society in the Twenty First century.