In his book Uncharitable, author Dan Pallota refers to the word profit and its original meaning in Latin, which is to progress or advance, then goes on to write that the not-for-profit sector is the only industry that’s literally defined as not for progress!
While there is a certain amount of humor in how Pallota has framed the sector, there is also a certain amount of truth. Not–for-profits and how their work is defined, funded, structured and delivered have struggled to stay progressive, adaptive and relevant, given the political, business and social climate in which they operate.
At the core, there is a definitional problem. Being designated a not-for-profit does little to set expectations of social innovation or social entrepreneurialism. In fact, it’s a dangerous designation that marginalizes the capacity, capital and talent that organizations need to take the kind of strategic steps — and sometimes risks — that lead to innovation and learning, or to truly move the needle on social change.
In addition to the definitional problem, the not-for-profit narrative has created a condition in which the sector is expected to act like a charity and fundraise its way through the many complex societal issues it is focused on, or to take a vow of poverty as a mechanism for survival. The problem is also compounded by government and other funders who avoid paying true and accurate costs — “because as charities you can raise money to fill any gaps,” while continuing to increase regulations and expectations that not-for-profits should “act more like businesses.”
The sector also has itself to blame for continuing the narrative. Boards, leaders and constituents have been so focused on the singularity of a mission or even a particular program that they have lost connection with the broader needs of the communities they serve. Considerable focus is given to how well a program is delivered while often ignoring if the program is relevant to actual community need. At the end of the day, much of the sector’s work is acted upon community and not within community.
In a very real sense, the communities served by the human service sector are requiring not only different approaches, but a totally different definition of the types of organizations doing the work. Narrowly defined, singularly focused mission organizations, doing work in isolation, will not be successful in an environment where broad community healing and resilience-building is necessary.
In a recent Open Minds publication, Monica Oss hit the nail on the head when she asked the question, “Is your organization’s mission driving change, growth and innovation or is it an anchor around its neck?” She then went on to illustrate her point by using the communication industry as an example, and in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but incredibly clarifying manner, asked, “Who fared better — those companies focused on making the globe smaller through innovative communication or companies that focused on building the next best pay phone booth?” Clearly, mission is important — but relevance is the Holy Grail.
In the era of healthcare transformation, whole person/whole population health concepts, and a focus on creating a “culture of wellness” in our country, it is time for the next evolutionary phase of the sector. It is becoming increasingly apparent that, as currently formulated, the sector is not equipped to take on deep rooted social problems such as racism, poverty, inequity and other social determinants that adversely affect our communities on a consistent basis, leading some trauma practitioners to describe them as Persistent Toxic Stress Environments.
Clearly, the time for re-naming and re-defining the sector is at hand and the stakes have never been higher in terms of the suffering of many of our communities and the need for the sector to reimagine itself and to reconnect authentically with community. It is time to let go of language that depicts the not-for-profit sector as non-progressive or unable to advance.
Join the Conversation!
On Wednesday, August 24th, please join Trillium Family Services as we welcome representatives from the Building Community Resilience: Moving Healthcare Upstream Collaborative (Washington, D.C.), the Sanctuary Institute (New York), the People’s Institute Northwest(Seattle), Metropolitan Group (D.C./SF/PDX), and the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care (International), to explore the concept of Social Impact Organizations together and co-create a national framework, which we will be piloting across the sector in Oregon.
The conversation will be moderated by Emmy Award winning journalist, Radio Personality and Author of “All The Things We Never Knew: Chasing The Chaos of Mental Illness”, Sheila Hamilton.
Tune in to the Keep Oregon Well YouTube channel at 3pm on the 24th HERE.