Co-authored by Julia Sterkovsky, E.D. of the Seattle Human Services Coalition
The nonprofit sector has become an indispensable part of the American economy and society -- one way we work toward a "more perfect union," even what makes us American. While there have been cuts and slow-downs in government investments, if the past hundred-plus years (as well as the interest and vigor of the millennials) are any indication, the sector will continue to grow.
The other two sectors are well-recognized and well-understood -- the public sector, which is government, and the private, for-profit sector. However, the nonprofit sector, in contrast, is an incredibly diverse array of civic "goods," including some things that are done in one or both of the other sectors, such as education, museums, and human services. The difference between the public and private sectors and nonprofits is that nonprofit organizations (NPOs) are the inventions of and are owned by a kind of amorphous thing called "civil society" or more simply, "the community." They are not businesses. They are not branches of government. They are citizen-led and in our diverse and pluralistic society any group of citizens can create and operate a NPO, provided that the purposes and operations comply with certain provisions of the Internal Revenue Code.
The three sectors interacting are part of what makes this nation great and the world knows it. We not only export our innovations and business acumen, we also export democracy and the expertise of the nonprofit sector, or nongovernmental sector as it is known in much of the world.
Community-based human services nonprofits, those with familiar brand names and those that are totally local, are a part of the fabric of American life. Our kids grow up through them. They help families overcome challenges. They guide us through crises. People with disabilities become valued for their abilities through them. Older adults find well-being and companionship in them. There is hardly an American that does not touch or is not touched in very fundamental and meaningful ways by one or many of our vast network of nonprofit human service organizations at some point in their lives.
That's all good, right? Well, not entirely. The nature of such "charities" has changed dramatically over the decades. In fact, for many, their purposes are "charitable," but "charity," in the historic sense of charitable donations and voluntary help is, today, just one component of the nature of nonprofit organizations, along with professional staff, user fees, foundation grants, government financing, and, sometimes, enterprise. And because the economy and government have such significant effects on all of these resources, nonprofits are pretty much whipped around, as are average citizens, by the winds of change, crisis, and discord in the government and in the economy. Add to this, being relied on so heavily by the other sectors and depended on by millions of people.
As citizens, we engage with these organizations and yet we take them for granted: they are, quite literally, a part of our lives and our communities and we expect them to be there. We have heard that trends in participation in youth groups are down, for example, but when we want our daughters to become Girl Scouts, we expect Girl Scouts to be there. When our aging parents need more hands-on help than we are equipped to provide, we expect the local Council on Aging to point us in the right direction. And on it goes, across the spectrum of human lives. But what we imagine as a system is only a system in the sense that there is a culture of collaboration among local human service organizations. There are also gaps and inefficiencies because these services and organizations developed piecemeal over the decades, emerging from the strength of individual and civic passions, but often lacking a grand plan for how one thing fits with the others.
As long as public investment in these community-based initiatives continued to grow we could envision the pieces coming together as we reached across gaps while infrastructure was built. However, we have arrived at a time when increasing needs for services have outpaced public funding. If we are going to progress together from this point, we need to look up and envision together where we are headed.
While there are distinctions from one community to the next, we all want strong, healthy communities. Human development and human needs are more universal than not; the arc and vagaries of life are constant, regardless of where one lives. What is the one critical element that will make it possible for all of the leaders in local and national organizations, who work on homelessness, hunger, domestic violence, youth development or provide services to seniors, or people with disabilities, to be more effective in their own mission? A shared vision and coordinated plan.
Who is the "we" who needs to come together? People who make use of the services and those who have stepped up to create and provide the services have the interest and expertise and are uniquely positioned to bridge the divides of auspices (in this case, mostly public and nonprofit), geography, and level of government to define the unifying vision and core of human development and human services for the nation. It has served well up to this point to have providers and advocates organized by sector, areas of specialization, and geography but the time has arrived when, in order to make the kind of progress for all Americans that we are capable of, we need to come together across those lines to define a common language, a common vision and collectively advance them.
What are the elements of a Just and Thriving Community? Are you in?