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The Permeable Nonprofit
Alex Steffen, 11 Mar 06

The rules of civic activism are changing, and with change in those rules will inevitably come change in the way NGOs run. The future of the NGO is still emerging, but Michael C. Gilbert add some thoughts about the permeable nonprofit:

"The simple fact is that people don't really care about nonprofit organizations per se, unless they have some personal ego identification with them. Even staff and funder loyalty to an organization is fluid, transferring from one organization to another over the years. When I taught career management workshops for people who were first entering nonprofit work, I used to teach them that strategically they should think of themselves as working for a cause, not for an organization. And that reflects a basic truth: People care about causes."

(via Jon Stahl)

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I've worked for one or another nonprofit at many levels for almost 20 years, almost all of them advocacy groups at least in part. Both Gilbert's piece and the piece linked from Alex's previous post are thoughtful analyses, and it's good to see them out here where people can read them.

There's a great lack of public discussion of the drawbacks of large nonprofit corporations as an advocacy vehicle. While most of the staff I've worked with from large advocacy NGOs identify with the "movement" their employer is part of, it's incredibly easy for any NGO to spend 95% of its time on work focused more on the preservation of the NGO itself, a corporation, than on the movement. People build their egos into these groups, particularly longtime leaders, and there's often little that more movement-oriented underlings can do to refocus on movements vs organizations.

I'm a New Yorker, and this city is full of old advocacy groups whose attachment to their missions has brittled with age. Labor unions are often in the same position, obviously. What we can do about this isn't clear, but talking about it is essential if we don't want (eg) the environmental movement to go the way of organized labor in the US.

I'm also in grantmaking (I work for an association of small foundations, mostly started by heirs and committed to activist-driven grantmaking). Many grantmakers famously live by a herd mentality, where they're unwilling to give to groups not already recognized by their grantmaking peers. It's amazing how easy it is to get progressive/radical NGOs to recognize you as a pathbreaking grantmaker simply because you're willing to give money to people who aren't already awash in it. And clearly that contributes to the institutionalization of big advocacy groups, who can continue to attract money just by name recognition, without the innovation more often found at the grass roots.

No conclusions, certainly no new ones. But thanks for continuing the dialogue.

Posted by: Dave on 13 Mar 06

Those interested in civic engagement, nonprofits and grantmaking may wish to read the May 2005 report that I co-authored with Marty Kearns and Allison Fine:

Power to the Edges: Trends & Opportunities in Online Civic Engagement

We wrote it to help grantmakers understand the changing nature of civic engagement, the role social networks play, and the implications for nonprofit organizations.

Executive Summary is here:

Full report is here:

-- Jillaine Smith

Posted by: Jillaine Smith on 15 Mar 06



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