I spent a good part of the last two days talking about non-profit innovation. First, I spent some time with the 2013 class of Coro Fellows, who are just beginning month-long non-profit assignments. Then I attended an upstate Nonprofit Leadership Summit.
At both locations, I tried to make the case that the non-profit sector is one of the under-appreciated strengths of the United States (self-serving, I know). This idea came up last week when I met with a visiting prisoners' rights advocate from Turkey. One of the things she talked about was how difficult the playing field was for a non-governmental organization in Turkey -- the country didn't have a rich tradition of civic groups working to achieve important social goals.
By contrast, American history is rife with voluntary organizations and charitable causes. Indeed, de Tocqueville highlighted this feature of American life nearly two hundred years ago, writing in Democracy in America:
“Through associating, the coming together of people for mutual purpose, both public and private, Americans are able to overcome selfish desires, thus making both a self-conscious and active political
society and a vibrant civil society functioning independently from the state.”
Despite the importance of non-profit organizations to our economy (I recently read that non-profits employ more than 13 million people in the US), non-profits tend not to attract a lot of public attention. The other day I was bemoaning this fact and complaining that The New York Times has a daily business section, but no non-profit equivalent. But then I realized that, if you look at it the right way, every section of The New York Times is the non-profit section. Indeed, you can't read the arts section without reading about non-profit theater and dance companies, to say nothing of museums. And you can't read the front page without coming across some non-profit group that is either implementing or influencing government policy. Even the sports section is full of stories about colleges and organizations like the US Olympic Committee.
Like anything else, if you look hard enough you can find faults with the non-profit sector. Indeed, the former head of National Public Radio has recently released a book criticizing charities for, among other things, not achieving demonstrable impacts. (Full disclosure: I haven't read the book, just the coverage of it.)
I don't deny that there are problems in our sector -- redundancy, low-performing groups, mushy thinking, etc. But I'd be awfully surprised if non-profits didn't come out ahead when you compared them to businesses and government agencies on these fronts.