Nonprofits and democracy

Recognizing the impact of the civil sector in shaping organizations and our country is imperative

Jeanne Kojis

“I believe that nonprofits won’t exist in another 50 years.”

This statement from a colleague over lunch stopped me cold. My response was the same as when I heard polar bears were on a short trajectory to extinction.

“Wait, what did you just say?”

My friend was specifically focused on those social services nonprofits whose government contracts were drawing private sector interest. He did not portend the demise of local arts groups or high school booster clubs. However, the image of a threatened ecosystem was now writ large and kept circling my thinking on the role of nonprofits.

Our democracy draws its strength from citizen participation. The unique value Americans derive from their right to come together and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend ideas was noted in 1831 by French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. Coming together for the common good was an early component of our society.

There are now 1.6 million nonprofits, representing more than five percent of the GDP. One in 10 workers is a nonprofit employee. Just four percent have expenses over $10 million. Over two-thirds have annual expenditures of less than $100,000; three-quarters have less than $500,000. There are lots of people engaged in very small economic efforts. The question is sometimes asked, are they making an impact? That can depend on who you ask and how one measures, but I say “yes.”

The GDP profile is a relatable business context, but when we simply declare, “Nonprofits are businesses,” we turn our backs on the ‘civil society’ – how nonprofits used to be known. In the recent embrace of a business perspective to the exclusion of all else, we are disavowing our heritage. This is not a defense of poor management in any nonprofit. Rather, it is a voice of concern that this baby-going-out-with-the-bathwater is a high stakes problem for us all.

Apart from their economic importance, nonprofits perform vital functions in our community. Lester Salamon, director at Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies has identified the following functions:

Services

Nonprofits unrestricted by a profit mandate can make adjustments to identify and address unmet needs, providing high quality service with the common good as the only shareholder.

Advocacy

By bringing the public’s attention to issues such as slavery, women’s suffrage, and rallying support for both progressive and conservative concerns, nonprofits have played a pivotal role in improving people’s lives over our history.

Expression

Artistic, religious, cultural, social and other concerns find expression through nonprofits, enriching human existence and the vitality of our lives. History has shown these primary links to a people’s humanity in otherwise intolerable circumstances as fundamental to survival.

Community

Community building between individuals for a unified purpose creates norms of cooperation that carry forward into other parts of our life.

Sense of responsibility

Nonprofits embody, nurture and sustain American rugged individualism forged with a sense of responsibility to others. This is the cornerstone of community life, of voting and of philanthropy.

All of these functions foster leadership. Leaning together with others toward a better community – for social justice, a religious belief, the arts, the future and the past – this is the proving ground for leadership.

Nonprofits are much more than transaction and service delivery. Good business practices and articulating the work done are both important. Recognizing and valuing the import and impact that the civil sector has made over 200 years – and continues to play in shaping organizations and our country today – is imperative.

Jeanne Kojis is the executive director of the Nonprofit Network Southwest Washington.

The network’s October conference theme is Nonprofits & Democracy, Strengthening Civil Society. Kojis can be reached at Jeanne@NonProfitNetworkWA.org.

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