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The New Non-Profit

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This article is the first in a five part series exploring innovative strategies and solutions to increase the sustainability of the non-profit human services sector.
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The non-profit bubble is bursting.

According to the 2012 Nonprofit Almanac there are more than 1.6 million non-profits operating in the U.S., of which nearly 20 percent (320,000) provide human services to historically underresourced communities and disenfranchised individuals. These human service organizations are critical to the fabric of American society, providing services to the poor and the vulnerable. As these institutions toil everyday to create accessible pathways to new possibilities for these communities, they are confronted with a complicated and painful reality. While they fiercely advocate for self-sustainability, agency and self-actualization for the constituents they serve, as institutions they are unable to ensure their own ability to accomplish the very same goals.

With many organizations still recovering from the impact of the 2009 recession which led to devastating investment losses, significant decreases in public and private funds from individuals and institutions, coupled with a simultaneous increase in demand for services, institutional knowledge loss due to rapid and unexpected transitions and staff taking on multiple roles thereby destabilizing their program integrity and outcomes, it is obvious that something must change.

The human service non-profit of the future is bold, innovative, resourceful and impactful and to get there we need:

  1. To Adapt the Business Model -- As the old adage goes, you cannot do the same thing and expect different results. Traditional philanthropy has cultivated a culture of organizational learned helplessness in the non-profit sector and as funding availability has decreased there is a critical need to explore more entrepreneurial solutions. Leveraging business acumen and adapting and applying those market based strategies for the non-profit sector would allow non-profits to potentially generate enough income to stabilize their core administrative needs. This would allow them to utilize revenue generated by traditional philanthropy for innovation and institutional re-investment.
  2. Elevate Diverse Solutions -- With the language and possibility of social entrepreneurship making gains in public media and recent college graduates intent on building careers with meaning, we are in the midst of a historical moment. A moment where making money and doing good are not separate but integrated. While social enterprise sounds new, we must remember that there are already non-profit organizations using enterprise to ensure their sustainability. Organizations that are leveraging hybrid business models and commercial market principles to access diversified revenue streams or lean start up principles to increase their operational efficiency need to be studied, their lessons packaged as tools and those tools shared and applied to help existing organizations evolve.
  3. Educate and Advocate for Innovation -- Non-profit leadership and funding institutions need more education as it relates to innovative philanthropic opportunities (i.e. social impact bonds, impact investing and crowdfunding). As foundations evolve their funding priorities and tools and non-profit leadership increase their knowledge base and ability to leverage failure, innovation becomes possible.
  4. Shift the Culture -- Employees are the most valuable asset of the non-profit community and to be able to recruit and retain high-performing staff there needs to be more attention paid to the development of a healthy and thriving company culture. The establishment of a culture that supports intrapreneurship, ensures employee satisfaction and prioritizes excellence and accountability, would help to unlock solutions from the individuals who may know best.

This new non-profit is not only possible and necessary, but it is arriving and the more we can center our work as non-profit employees, innovators and game changers as a critical voice in the conversation of social entrepreneurship, the more we can ensure that sustainable social good impacts the communities who need it most.

We must center the sector's evolution at the vulnerable intersections. I ask each of us to make a renewed commitment to trying new things, to confronting our fears and taking risk, to sharing solutions, to evolving and finally become the institutions we've always envisioned ourselves to be.

Here's to acknowledging our own limitless potential and manifesting a world where the communities we serve can thrive.