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November 13, 2009

Where are the spokespeople for the nonprofit sector’s distinctive value?
Where are the people who will stand up and take issue when Jack and Suzy Welch write, as they did in their BusinessWeek column in 2007, “In most nonprofit situations, as long as you don’t screw up, you’re pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment.” (Not so at the three nonprofits where I have worked, but true of some of the companies I consulted to in a past job as a corporate management consultant.)
The Welches go on to liken the nonprofit and government sectors—which they appear to believe are one and the same—to “a foreign country” (this is apparently quite an insult in the Welch family) and encourage a reader working in government to come over to “the other side,” saying, “the change of scenery will do you good.”
This kind of ignorant and derisive rhetoric in a major national magazine should not go unchallenged; but, today, too often, it does.
The nonprofit sector needs, with a clear and strong voice, to articulate its value. To do so effectively, it must also communicate that it isn’t doing enough: that there are too many ineffective nonprofits, that the push for greater effectiveness is the top priority. We need to communicate this because it is true and because anyone who claims to be as effective as they could possibly be—to be fully maximizing their potential—in any walk of life is deluded, or on the brink of a fall.
Just as it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, it is possible to believe both that the nonprofit sector is and has been a defining strength of this country and that it must dramatically improve its effectiveness. It is possible to both celebrate the diversity of the sector and its various organizations and push for greater clarity of organizational goals, strategies, and performance indicators. It is possible both to applaud initiatives fostering “social innovation” and the government’s embrace of this push and also recognize what has worked in the past.
We need not tear down the sector to improve it. We need not disparage all that has come before in order to chart a better future.
The sector can learn from its great past leaders, like John Gardner, who of course helped found Independent Sector—one of the few organizations that articulates forcefully the distinctive role and value of nonprofits. Gardner wrote brilliantly of the need to push constantly for higher levels of excellence—of the centrality of that quest to a free society. “Those who are most deeply devoted to a democratic society must be precisely the ones who insist upon excellence, who insist that free men and women are capable of the highest standards of performance, who insist that a free society can be a great society in the richest sense of that phrase,” he wrote.
And Gardner also wrote beautifully of the distinctive value of the nonprofit sector as one
“in which we are committed to alleviate misery and redress grievances, to give reign to the mind’s curiosity and the soul’s longing, to seek beauty and defend truth where we must, to honor the worthy and smite the rascals with everyone free to define worthiness and rascality, to find cures and to console the incurable, to deal with the ancient impulse to hate and fear the tribe in the next valley, to prepare for tomorrow’s crisis and preserve yesterday’s wisdom, and to pursue the questions others won’t pursue because they are too busy or too lazy or too fearful or too jaded.”
A year ago, I had the opportunity to speak at an assembly of high school students at Catlin Gabel, the wonderful nonprofit private school in Portland, Oregon, that I attended, tuition-free, from kindergarten through 12th grade—thanks to the philanthropy that has supported that institution and allowed it to build an endowment. I shared this quote with them in the hopes of inspiring them to appreciate and perhaps decide to spend some or all of their careers working in the nonprofit sector of this country.
The fact is, our nonprofit sector is envied by many other countries for its achievements and for the way it has strengthened our free society. Let’s embrace that legacy as we push for dramatically greater impact and effectiveness.
We can do both at once.
Disclaimers and Disclosures: The views I express here are entirely my own. They are of course very much informed by my perspective as president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, but we have had spirited debates among our board and staff on the very issues I discuss in these blog entries. CEP’s mission is to provide data and create insight so philanthropic funders can better define, assess, and improve their effectiveness and impact. It should be noted that several of the foundations I cite as examples in this blog, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been clients of CEP’s and have also provided grant support to the organization. A full list of our funders, by size of funding, can be found at
Coming on Monday: Responding to the Comments.
Thursday’s post: Undermining Ourselves.
Wednesday’s post: The Attack from Within.
Tuesday’s post: The Attack on Philanthropy.

Phil Buchanan