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Big Dreams for the NonProfit Sector

Lori Halley 21 February 2008 5 comments

Rosetta Thurman, this week’s host for the Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants,  asks, “What one thing should we do to improve the state of the nonprofit sector?”


In trying to tackle a question this size, frankly, I feel a bit like a pop princess telling the media about her solution to world hunger.  What useful suggestion can I make, when so many creative and dedicated people spend the better part of their days in pondering the question?


It’s tempting to take the easy road and say, “more money.”  As a society, we need to give the nonprofit sector more money. Stable sources of ample funds with which to hire topnotch professional staff and plan more effectively for the long-term, with long-range vision and more ambitious programs – now, there’s a dream! 


Or should it be, “more volunteers” to help to carry out those programs?  “More government support” perhaps, particularly in the area of taxation, to encourage charitable giving? “More corporate support” through grants and sponsorships? “More cooperation” in terms of strategic alliances between nonprofits?


Any  of the above would be a boost to nonprofits, certainly.  But the challenge is to choose a single wish from that weighty list. 


The question is complicated, to begin with, by the  sheer diversity of groups in the nonprofit sector.  


What helps one part of the nonprofit spectrum   a major health-care charity with a global reach, for example – is not necessarily useful to an ad hoc group of volunteers carrying out a neighbourhood clean-up, or to a kennel club working  with nursing home staff to create a pet therapy program for shut-in seniors.  


To benefit  the nonprofit sector as a whole,  then, our  “one thing” should bring  a benefit  for  any not-for-profit organization, from the most ambitious charitable enterprise right down to the grass roots level.


It all comes down to giving. 


Money, time, skills and expertise, equipment and supplies, whatever the resources that a specific nonprofit might need – in the end it comes down to a willingness (on the part of someone, somewhere) to make a gift.


I would suggest – and I know this sounds more than a bit ingenuous – what the nonprofit sector could use most is a culture of giving.


Altruism would be a nice bonus, but I don’t know if it’s always necessary or, in fact, desirable to look too critically at the motives behind every charitable act.  If a corporation gets good press and tax benefits by underwriting the costs of a nonprofit’s outreach event, after all, the fact remains that the event takes place, the message is spread, and the internal resources  that would otherwise have been expended are left available for other good works.


In an ideal world where the nonprofit sector is fully supported,  giving would be second nature – a basic principle of good citizenship,  a part of everyday life of the individual.  


As it stands, with the exception of those “hidden” financial contributions to the nonprofit sector that are made through the taxation system and government funding,  the burden of support comes from a small percentage of the population  – the same few volunteers step forward time and time again; the same few donors can be counted on to reach for their chequebooks. No wonder the volunteers "burn out" and the funding well runs dry.


Imagine the power for change, the power for good, of a society where every citizen truly does believe that “it takes a village” and is prepared to invest their own personal resources in a philanthropic cause. 


As I say, it’s a dream...


But if a culture of giving is the pie-in-the-sky dream for the nonprofit sector –  that still begs the original question:  What one thing should we do to make it happen?


Get them while they’re young.

In blunt business terms, our children are our most valuable untapped assets. They may not have bank accounts or adult skills or useful business connections,  true, but they will... Someday, they will.  


Any nonprofit might do well to take a close look at its programs, and consider what changes or additions might be made. Are we making every effort to reach out to children? Are we speaking clearly and with purpose to the next generation? Could we do more?


Many nonprofits are moving in that direction already – creating educational partnerships with schools, designing our public events to be more family-friendly,  and enabling self-motivated teens to set up youth chapters in their own communities. 


Our communities are filled with many informal examples of teaching to give:  Teens bring canned goods for the food bank as the price of admission to a school dance.  University freshmen wash cars for charity as part of their orientation week activities.  Parents help the smallest children to choose unwanted toys to give to others.  Scout groups turn out to help carry groceries. Just take a look around...


Teach the values. Model the behaviour.  Empower our  children to know that they can make a real difference to the lives of others, through their own efforts. 


It’s a matter of many small actions, perhaps, but history is filled with examples of small actions that together built to a profound result.   And we can always dream...

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Thursday, 21 February 2008 at 8:45 PM


  • Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor said:

    Saturday, 23 February 2008 at 1:18 PM

    It might sound cliché, but the fact is that money is really overvalued.

    Money doesn't have value on itself, it only has value as an abstraction to the things it can get you. It is an abstract value to  things, so they can become interchangeable. Is a way to have a unique measure with beautiful mathematical properties for everything.

    It is a beautiful concept. It might sound as irony, but I actually think so.

    However, there is a problem. Not all things can be compared between them, you know, apples and oranges... thanks to money, you can actually compare apples and oranges on terms of market value, but an apple is still an apple and an orange is still an orange.

    And many things simply can't be priced in monetary terms, society itself can't. If not for other reason, let's say that is because is society that creates the money and gives it its value.

    Money is an abstraction to things and not otherwise. Educating children to focus on the consequences rather than the medium is a great idea, indeed.

    Thanks for the reflection :)

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 25 February 2008 at 4:18 AM

    Thanks for the comment, Guilherme. It's an intriguing thought-- that money could be 'overvalued' but, on the other hand, allow us to compare two very disparate things in a way that is both useful and essential.  This week's round-up on From the Pipeline has many thought-provoking ideas around the topic of what nonprofits really do need to do to make change, some that involve funding and some that do not (at least not directly). After all, there are two sides: money can buy us our choice of apples or oranges, but someone will have to grow the fruit to take to market!

  • Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor said:

    Thursday, 28 February 2008 at 9:20 AM

    Intriguing? Lol

    Simply put, what I meant is that there are things the money can't buy. But that is roughly speaking, because actually we are surrounded with so many things that money can't buy and we don't pay them so much attention precisely because they can be very easy to get.

    Most of the time we are actually focusing on getting money to get the things that money CAN buy, and ignoring the rest.

    Not that money can't buy a lot of things, of course, I'm into making money and spending it as the next guy, but the true fact is that it doesn't have any value on itself, its only value is by the things it can get you.

  • Kids Wish Network said:

    Friday, 29 February 2008 at 7:19 AM

    Plus you have to think about the current demographics of your donor base.  If it's an older group, all it's doing is getting older and with that aging comes attrition.  Getting younger people involved is most definitely something that you need to do with your nonprofit

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 03 March 2008 at 8:22 AM

    Good point about the demographic realities, Kids Wish Network. And I'd bet a bundle that retaining and recruiting volunteers - especially people to take on the more physically demanding volunteer roles - will be a top priority for nonprofits in the near future, if that's not already the case!

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