Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

July 26, 2012

Imagining the Future

By: Dr. Mary Tschirhart
Wolfgang Bielefeld and I recently asked thought leaders to tell us what the future would hold for nonprofits. I share some of their ideas in this article.
We heard a lot about accountability. Putnam Barber, author and nonprofit advisor, wrote:"Accountability is only going to get more and more important. Nonprofits of every size and type are going to be asked – by governments, by ratings groups, by actual and potential grantors and donors, and, most importantly, by those they seek to serve – to demonstrate publicly the strengths and value of what they do. With thought, determination, and – let's face it – a little luck, this emphasis can be a plus for everyone.
It's going to be up to nonprofits, though, to change the rules of the game. Let's call it proactive accountability. Here's what's needed: First, board commitment to efforts like "charting impact" that structure the definition and description of the work ( Second, complete and accurate transparency about finances, including doing what is required and expected by government agencies with responsibility for oversight and regulation. Third, rejection of game playing in fundraising appeals and other communications – no more bragging about meaningless "stars" or presenting results that distort reality in pursuit of support or acclaim. Fourth, active engagement in efforts to break the pattern of wasteful and misleading forms of "accountability" that have been tolerated and ignored – while growing ever more burdensome for way too long. In other words, commit to being known and respected for doing good work and candid and clear about what it takes to do it."
To follow Barber’s advice, nonprofit leaders should publically and programmatically recognize their nonprofit’s dependency on other actors to achieve mission outcomes. It is unlikely that nonprofits addressing entrenched, complex, social problems can be effective working alone. Leaders should recognize the growing sophistication and interconnectedness of those evaluating their nonprofit’s efforts. Information may be accessible from multiple sources, not all controlled by the nonprofit. Honest, authentic communication will, as always, be critical to maintaining stakeholders’ trust.
John Graham, the CEO of ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, noted changes in the workforce. He commented:"As the workforce continues to evolve, nonprofits’ ability to maintain relevancy in a changing demographic landscape will be more important than ever. We now have a multigenerational workforce that includes Gen X workers, Millennials, and Baby Boomers who are postponing retirement. With multiple generations in the workforce, we face the challenge of reconciling a range of professional development needs, work-life balance expectations, and value propositions. The workforce is also becoming more ethnically diverse, so managing and encouraging a diverse and inclusive workplace – with pathways to management and other leadership positions – is essential for the future success of associations."
More than ever, we are in a world where quick and easy categorizations of the generations may lead us down faulty paths. The members of Generation Y are more diverse than previous generations. This means that we should be careful about making assumptions about their specific work styles, interests, and values. Leaders who can treat each worker as an individual with unique motivations and abilities will have a leg up over those who want to compartmentalize their workforce, limiting their workers’ potential contributions.
Jonathan Reckford, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International, also shared his thoughts. He told us:"One of the challenges that nonprofit groups must sometimes address is the assumption that we are somehow less than professional—that we are driven by passion for a cause rather than a bottom line. This is not an either/or. Nonprofits often arise out of grassroots movements where people are motivated by a sense of calling and mission. However, we are also accountable to donors, to the community (in the case of Habitat for Humanity, a global community) and to those whom we serve. We are using other people’s money to help those in need. We need to have higher standards than businesses because more is at stake. The same skills that make leaders successful in the private sector are needed in the nonprofit world. You can’t run a nonprofit like a business, but all nonprofits require leaders with great competence, drive, humility and character."
Mr. Reckford suggests that while for-profit business tools and orientations may be helpful, they must be tempered with an understanding of the limits of their applicability to the nonprofit setting. It may be difficult for the public to understand the distinctiveness of a nonprofit provider from one in another sector. There is a responsibility to honor the trust and discretion afforded nonprofit organizations by virtue of their legal status. To preserve the integrity of the nonprofit sector, its leaders must uphold high standards.

As the future unfolds, new developmental needs for nonprofit sector leaders will be revealed. Just as someone getting a MBA twenty years ago was not exposed to the value of social media in building business relationships, there will always be innovations that change how nonprofits touch lives and make positive differences. An orientation to continual learning will help ensure that worthwhile opportunities are not missed and nonprofit leaders remain open to possibilities for new, more effective ways to forward their missions.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Managing Nonprofit Organizations by Mary Tschirhart and Wolfgang Bielefeld (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012). Mary Tschirhart is the director of the Institute for Nonprofits and a professor of public administration at NC State University. Wolfgang Bielefeld is professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

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