Sunday, August 24, 2008

Non-Profits 2.0

On August 16th, I went through basic training at the Craigslist Foundation's Non-Profit Boot Camp. An annual event on the east and west coast, the goal of this gathering of non-profiteers is to "educate and empower the next generation of nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs, connecting them with valuable industry resources, peers and potential supporters." As a member of that "next generation" who is watching the baby boomers leading in the sector retire, I really enjoyed the opportunity to attend informative sessions and to meet so many people doing great work. On-site, I so wished I had brought my laptop to live-blog the conference. But I did take copious notes - which I will share (late-breaking style) here.

My favorite part of the event was the morning keynote speech delivered by Professor Paul Light of New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. In his address, Light asked what it means to be "non-profit-like" and explored how non-profits are currently perceived and what he hopes they will become.

I cracked up when Light listed the qualities currently associated with non-profits:
  • Incorporated (woot, tax exempt status!)
  • Dependent (on the whims of funders, volunteers)
  • Chaotic (high turnover, unclear leadership, shoestring budgets, and more!)
  • Heroic (the self-sacrificing employee making little pay, but still keeping investment banking hours)
  • Cheap (someoone, somewhere, please get those non-profits some matching furniture and a stapler!)
  • Doubted (71% of the American public thinks charities are wasting money)
  • Stressed out (employee burn out much?)
For me, the point about the stapler really hit home. I mean, my desk is currently furnished with a mini-stapler. Quite adequate...but still.

After going over these often negative attributes, Light then pondered what non-profits would be like if the dedicated individuals in this sector declared "I'M NON-PROFIT-LIKE!" as a point of pride - instead of shorthand for I-wish-we-were-more-like-those-successful-corporations. Light listed these aspirations for what non-profits need to do:
  • Be rigorous - in being transparent about finances and outcomes
  • Be collaborative - by not working for one's cause in isolation
  • Be innovative - new ideas are needed as much as new organizations
  • Be agile - by staying young, fresh, and relevant
  • Be prepared - non-profits should spend wisely, which includes having a reliable infrastructure (the stapler! buy the stapler!)
  • Be independent - by generating revenue that the organization controls-
  • Be just - by paying employees a living wage and by taking proactive steps to prevent burn-out
  • Be audacious - deliver the services necessary while also changing the world that requires those services
  • Be advocates - and change the world
  • Be PROUD
These are definitely qualities that I aspire to in my own work - and I appreciate how succintly and powerfully Professor Light summarized the work that non-profiteers have ahead of them. (And he has several books in which you can read more!)

With so many non-profits out there today and with so much change expected as leaders retire, it is an exciting time to be working in this field. But, as always, non-profit life is also tough. So, dear readers, what would the ideal non-profit 2.0 look like to you?

Please note that as my M.A. thesis project is complete, the George Washington University is no longer overseeing research conducted in conjunction with this blog (effective June 2007 to present). The Informed Consent Materials created while this blog was under GWU's IRB oversight are still available for your information and the principles outlined in them are still being used as a general guide for my continued work.

1 comment:

  1. Great notes!

    It is definitely tough to be the "new" generation in the non-profit world. One thing I feel is very important is just trusting the younger generation and the ideas they have. I have worked for several non-profits in my young life, and most of them had a very "you're young, what do you know?" attitude. One non-profit, luckily, is very encouraging and accepting of new directions. There is, of course, that need to want to control everything, but at least they are more receptive to the ideas we have and in letting us take the lead on projects.

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