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Back to the Future: Will We See a New Generation of Nonprofit Organizations in 2011?

There are new leaders coming into the nonprofit sector with ideas that have the potential to change the way social change happens. It’s time to ask some new questions.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my problem with the term “next generation leaders”  because young people are already leading and doing amazing things in the world. So, we’re not “next”, we’re NOW. But the main reason I wanted to coin the term “now generation” leaders is because I think the “next generation” moniker gives young people (and everyone else) the permission to delay leadership. It gives the impression that we have to wait for some undetermined time before we can lead and assert our ideas for change. That we have to sit on the sidelines until we get tapped to jump into the game. And until then, we’ve got to sit quietly with the other kids and try to catch the crumbs of wisdom and power that fall from the big kid’s table.

But, I digress. We don’t have to agree on the terminology. What I think we can all agree on is that yes, there ARE new leaders coming into the nonprofit organizations with new ideas that have the potential to dramatically change the way social change happens in America. So, it’s time to ask some new questions. I think we need to ask ourselves whether a new generation of leaders can transform the nonprofit sector into a new generation of organizations that are attune to the changes happening all around us and responsive to the urgent needs of communities with one goal and one goal only: Impact.

I’ll be thinking and writing more on this theme over the next few weeks, but first I wanted to resurrect two important leadership and management frameworks that I think we need to pay attention to in the coming year. These ideas came about in the last three years and received quite a bit of attention when they were all new and shiny, but not to the extent to which they deserved over the long-term, in my opinion. I think we need to consider (and reconsider) more seriously the implications that the changing landscape has (and should have) on the nonprofit sector and the work of social change overall. Just because we’re still in a shaky economy shouldn’t preclude nonprofits from continuing to grow and evolve into better organizations that are better equipped to bring about a brighter future for all of us.

What would happen if we stopped talking about the new generation of leaders and started talking about a new generation of organizations? Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod-Grant did just that with their 2007 book, "Forces for Good: Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits."

"Forces for Good"

The authors of this breakthrough book made clear what most of us already knew but weren’t putting into practice: High-impact nonprofits work with and through other organizations and individuals to create more impact than they could have ever achieved alone. Specifically:

High-impact nonprofits build social movements and fields; they transform business, government, other nonprofits, and individuals; and they change the world around them. "Forces for Good" uncovered six practices that high-impact nonprofits use to achieve extraordinary impact. These nonprofits:

  1. Work with government and advocate for policy change
  2. Harness market forces and see business as a powerful partner
  3. Convert individual supporters into evangelists for the cause
  4. Build and nurture nonprofit networks, treating other groups as allies
  5. Adapt to the changing environment
  6. Share leadership, empowering others to be forces for good

In addition, the authors pointed out that high-impact nonprofits have mastered the basics needed to sustain their impact: attracting and retaining great people; finding sustainable sources of funding; and investing in their infrastructure and capacity.

To be able to implement the six practices outlined in Forces for Good, however, it was clear that nonprofits needed to look both inward and outward for capacity and organizational change. La Piana Consulting began to look at the most important trends through their Nonprofit Next Initiative in 2009.

La Piana Consulting’s Nonprofit Next Initiative

La Piana conducted this research project to enable the nonprofit sector to better understand what trends would have the greatest impact on the sector’s structure, activities, and leadership over the next five to ten years, and spark a dialogue about the future of the sector. These are the six trends they came up with.

  • Generational Shift: The aging of the baby boomers enables younger leaders to step into key roles as experienced leaders move on or redefine their roles. As this shift slowly unfolds, the generations will need to work together for many years to come. Beginning immediately, however, nonprofits will need to adapt in order to engage younger supporters. Our recent strategy work with groups such as Sierra Club, ACLU, and Amnesty International, has demonstrated the fading appeal of traditional conceptions of membership. Important causes need to reinvent themselves as “networks” to retain or grow their membership levels.
  • Economic/Political Uncertainty: This recession is more than a deep down-turn; it presents in many ways a fundamental shift. After 28 years of anti-government rhetoric leading to a smaller government, the new role of Washington, D.C. as backstop and investor of last resort will increase public recognition of the important role of the public sector. The nation’s swing to the right may be at an end. If Obama succeeds in navigating this economic crisis, a generational swing to a prolonged, more liberal era may be at hand.
  • Technology and Networking: Web 2.0 social networking presents a non-hierarchical, non-controlled, still-evolving, and thus not yet fully understood format for connectivity among nonprofit workers and activists, and between the sector and its constituents. This technology is a game-changer for everything from fundraising to community organizing to staff recruitment.
  • Diversity: The 2008 Presidential election turned attention to race, gender, ethnicity, and the larger topic of cultural competence – how we manage difference – in ways unimagined just a year earlier. A door has been opened, and it is up to the nonprofit sector to walk through it, leading a new national dialogue on difference.
  • Nonprofit Boundaries: Traditional sector boundaries are evaporating. Corporate leaders now head major foundations; businesses develop nonprofit subsidiaries; socially responsible corporations seek “B-Corp” and “L3C” status; investment houses aggressively compete with community foundations for donor-directed funds; nonprofits develop fee-for-service programs; regulations that once preserved human services as an exclusive nonprofit domain are falling; local governments question the value nonprofits provide to the community; and Washington asks if nonprofits that do not help the poor deserve tax exempt status or deductibility of gifts.
  • Virtual Work: Concerns over unstable oil prices, high downtown rents, rising greenhouse gases, and the quality-of-life impact of long commutes from the suburbs, combined with the possibilities offered by fast Internet connections, high-quality video conferencing, affordable all-in-one printer-scanner-fax-copiers, and hosted intranets, make “virtual workplaces” an appealing alternative for many organizations – particularly nonprofits, which traditionally have less money to spend on infrastructure anyway. Office culture is on the wane. What will we lose by not meeting around the water cooler, and how will we replace it?

Do you think these two frameworks are still applicable going into 2011? Combined, do you think they represent where a new generation of nonprofit organizations needs to go? What would you add or take away?

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COMMENTS

  • BY Jeff Young

    ON January 27, 2011 01:34 PM

    This is a really great start, Rosetta.  I like the way you are pointing to a challenge we all share, whether we are non-profits or for-profits.  We all need to become more connected, helping each other succeed. 

    I just referenced this entry in my own blog on my website and went on to ask how we can become this next generation of non-profit you talk about.  With us all overwhelmed doing more with even less, who has time to learn these new skills?  HOW we become this new generation of organization is the point of my own work.  We are a growing community trying to figure out how to create a bridge to this tomorrow without going crazy along the way.

    I would love to engage with you or any of your followers in this question of how we develop these new skills you have identified.  Perhaps we can all work to figure this out together.

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