The recent Nonprofit Congress succeeded in bringing together hundreds and hundreds of leaders from the small and moderate-sized nonprofit organizations that make up 80 percent or so of U.S. charities—those with budgets under a million dollars. You know, groups that are more likely to be characterized by donative income, voluntarism, service to those in dire need, and sacrifice; the kinds of nonprofits people are more likely to love. Dozens of local town hall meetings across the country helped energize about 400 delegates from such groups to come to Washington, D.C. in October, following the call of the National Council of Nonprofit Associations’ Audrey Alvarado and D.C. Central Kitchen’s Robert Egger.
While those assembled didn’t prove themselves very much more effective at true deliberative democracy than legislators, at least the priorities they set and the positions they took were informed by the folks back home instead of by campaign contributors. It certainly is a welcome public good that this portion of the sector is expanding its voice and doing so in ways that build a participatory base.
But here’s the thing about those priorities and positions –-put them all together and it seems that charities want public awareness and support for the sector so that they have an easier time advocating for the sector at large while engaging their constituents in solving problems at the community level by ensuring that the sector has the resources it needs for effectiveness, leadership and accountability to serve communities. At first glance that seems just fine, even great, but let’s look again: These priorities crowded out collaboration, partnerships with government and business, and, most disturbingly to this blogger, social change.
Secondly, even if we achieve full public awareness and support, lots and lots of resources, stunning organizational effectiveness, brilliant leadership and awesome accountability, and loads of grassroots-level problem solving activities, we will still face major difficulties as people, as a society, as a nation, and as a planet. A community base and perspective are essential, commendable, and missing from too many charitable organizations. But a community orientation is not in and of itself sufficient, nor inevitably more righteous than other ways of doing good and necessary work. It is vital to be close to the people, to be of the people, but we must be careful to remember that in a global economy with transnational institutions exacerbating worldwide structural problems, we alone can’t work our way out of trouble at the local level.
So, while I welcome the Nonprofit Congress and celebrate its significant successes in bringing forward the voice of community-based charities, we need to see this discussion as a beginning—a vision that I believe is shared by many of the participants and by the conveners. As I opined on related dynamics in The Chronicle of Philanthropy a few years ago, local groups need to mobilize because of the ways community issues are inextricably tied to national and global ones, and charities can’t do that without a high priority on expanded views of advocacy and collaborative work for social change.
Mark Rosenman is a public service professor at the Union Institute & University, where he has long worked in various roles. He sees his 20-plus years of initiative to strengthen the nonprofit sector as an extension of earlier professional efforts in the civil rights movement, urban anti-poverty work, international and domestic program development, and higher education.