Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reading Day: Four Futures of Nonprofits

I have committed myself to spend one day a week to reading articles, research, and other manuscripts that offer insight about the culture of nonprofit literature. Below is a summary and comments about one such piece.

Four Futures
by Paul Light

This article, posted on the Nonprofit Quarterly website, offers four possible scenarios of the future of nonprofits. At the heart of this article is a topic that is rarely talked about openly among the rank and file of nonprofit workers. Who determines the fate of the nonprofit sector's approaches to social change, use of resources, and sector culture about how to approach the work. The author states:

During these troubled times, what lies in store for the nonprofit sector, and what do we need to do about it? Along with every family in America, the nonprofit sector is wondering about its future. Will we miraculously survive as we largely do today? Will we starve our organizations to the core or emerge from the current economic calamity mostly intact? Will we fight the prevailing downturn on behalf of our individual institutions and leave others to defend themselves, or instead will we join forces to shore up the sector as a whole? In the aftermath of this financial crisis, will we have real options and choices?

The answers are not yet clear, but it appears that an intensifying struggle for ownership of the sector and how it is structured, governed, and deployed is under way. When boiled down to its fundamentals, the question is whether nonprofits are “owned” by their institutional funders (governmental and philanthropic) or whether a broader community of stakeholders should make the choice about the future nonprofits pursue. The search for an answer may yet produce a struggle for the identity and soul of the sector. Traditionally the sector belongs to this country’s citizens who have exercised their right to associate through civil society, but there is, of course, pressure from those who have the resources on which the sector depends.

The author offers the four possible future scenarios as a way to answer questions he poses above. Each future scenario outlines probability, who in the nonprofit sector would benefit and who would not. The last scenario "Transformation" offers suggestions about steps that can be take to authentically transform, not just change (Bridges, 1980; Gardner, 1981, Wheatley, 2005) how the sector serves the community and the role it holds in the country. The author understands that this is a long-term process that must be inclusive, innovative, and wider in scope than just survival of a nonprofit organization.

I really appreciate the author's inclusion of how smaller nonprofits could be affected in each scenario. The realities of smaller nonprofits, though they make up the majority of the nonprofit sector, are often left out of theoretical frameworks/discussions offering solutions to how nonprofits can be more effective as agents of social change.

What This Means to Me:
As a nonprofit community we have a tremendous opportunity to transform the future of our sector; I just want to make sure that from the get go the conversation (and subsequent actions taken) include the voices of smaller nonprofits who often tend to a very specific need or part of the larger community. The inclusion of the rank and file (read as people out in the field, not just the formal leadership of an organization) in the conversation about what the transformation looks like and how it is accomplished is critical. I, for one, am reflecting how I can be an active part of the transformation scenario and how old ways of being may be prohibiting me from being part of us as a sector moving forward.

In my own work, how am I manifesting the transformation scenario? How am I stopping it?

How can I support smaller nonprofits to be part of the larger NP sector conversation that will impact their ability to do social change work inclusively, effectively, and with integrity?

Who is having the conversation about why and how nonprofit workers need to be actively
taking care of their mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual self in order to engage in the work
in a way that demonstrates/reflects/is the social change we are working to create?


AdamGordon said...

Interesting post - from future-aligning to future-influencing action... important transition. best, Adam Gordon, author Future Savvy, Amacom Press

Chuck Bean said...

Raquel, great post about a great article. I am finding that Paul Light's "Four Futures" is the best discussion-starter out there. I think that, in reality, we may end up with bits and pieces from all four scenarios. But, we need a concerted discussion about how to mitigate the risks from scenarios II and III (if there is to be winnowing, how ought it be strategic?) and how to maximize the possibilities fo scenarios I and IV (making the case for the sector, stirring up discussion for Transformation, which you have done here!).

Chuck Bean
Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington