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Where Do We Go From Here?

January 17, 2009

Ray_sunshine Paul Light has a great piece in the new issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly in which he outlines four possible futures for the nonprofit sector (listed here from least likely to "wouldn't that be nice"):

The rescue fantasy. "The first future scenario is based on the 'kindness of strangers' and is likely to leave the nonprofit sector in the same position as poor, homeless Blanche DuBois. The idea is that Americans are a generous people and will continue giving, perhaps rising to the challenge and giving more from their strained budgets...."

A withering winterland. "This scenario has every nonprofit in the sector suffering....Depending on the length of the economic downturn, many nonprofits will starve themselves into a weakened organizational state through hiring freezes, pay freezes, layoffs, and deferred organizational maintenance...."

An arbitrary winnowing. "In this scenario, some nonprofits will fold, while others will prosper as contributions flow to the most visible and largest organizations as well as to those most connected to and influential with their donors...."

Transformation. "As has been noted in several of this issue’s articles, nonprofits could use the faltering economy and its impact on the sector as an opportunity to reinvent themselves. But this approach requires examining all possible options quickly and creatively...."

For the fourth scenario to become a reality, says Light, nonprofits need to embrace flexibility, innovation, and responsiveness and, at the same time, take the following concrete steps: resist funding restrictions; seek new ways to collaborate with other organizations; more closely coordinate research efforts that help the sector learn quickly about what works well and under what conditions; avoid overdependence on predetermined metrics as a method for encouraging effectiveness; and give young people a voice in determining the future of the sector. (Click here to read the complete article; it's well worth your time.)

Sounds like a sensible prescription to me. Is he right? Does the sector have the requisite capacity and leadership to, as Rahm Emanuel likes to say, turn crisis into opportunity? Or are we on the threshold, as Light has suggested elsewhere, of the proverbial seven lean years?

-- Mitch Nauffts

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  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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