Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why the nonprofit sector is unique

Non-profits in America are unique in that they give voice and place to some of society's most extraordinary needs. Nonprofits complete the web of work that we as a collective do, by supporting special interests, providing relief and developing community. Did you know that nonprofits exist in Colorado whose sole purpose is to provide bear-proof trashcans to citizens?1 There is an organization called the "National Odd Shoe Exchange" that specializes in providing one shoe for those who have a particular need. 2 Or take the cat allies nonprofit near Franklin County Florida that only serves the well-being of cats and cat allies on St. George Island. 3 The sector is diverse indeed.

Over 1.5 million nonprofits exist in the United States 4 and they are very different from their public and private sector siblings. Oftentimes nonprofits are encouraged to work more like organizations in the private sector who benefit from: quantifiable results, fewer budget constraints and more centralized processes. Americans have an affinity for efficiency, and when we see it happening in one place we wonder why it can't happen everywhere. I should admit that after having worked for nonprofits for eight years I too fell in and out of this mind trap. "If only we could be better at x, y, z... if only we had more money or more agile members... why can't my boss just delegate these tasks so that there is one direct person responsible for every project!!?" Well, there are a host of reasons why, and listing all of them would overwhelm this week's blog post. Additionally, my classmates presented strong contributions on the overarching attributes of nonprofits, so instead I will aim to drill down on one specific to example to illustrate the unique nature of nonprofit organizations. 

Evaluation. It cannot be overlooked that measurement and evaluation is very different for nonprofit organizations than it is for private and public sector organizations. Timelines for change and work with human services make determining outcomes tricky business. The work that nonprofits do does not often lend itself well to neat and tidy forms of measurement (the public sector can relate to this challenge as well, though I would argue that adding the public as a vested stakeholder whose dollars are at hand might put the public sector in an even more difficult place than many nonprofits). How can you linearly track the progress of individuals when so many factors have been involved in their growth? Collaboration is a key component of non-profits and is essential for budgeting, so which organization had the most impact or which organization deserves the kudos for the outcome? In a world of numbers, will quotes, pictures and success stories have as much of an impact? These strategies frequently work for public and private sector organizations and do not transfer as easily to many nonprofits.

Its also true that answers to these questions vary by organization. Therefore, what can the nonprofit do that its stepbrothers and sisters cannot? The nonprofit can have a nimble approach to its challenges. It is not the public or private sector and it must operate differently. In other words, it gets to operate differently! Approaching the sector this way reminds us of the void it fills in our nation's infrastructure- thus divinely pairing with the public and private realms of life. 

Additional sources:Renz, David O, ed. 2010. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.