04/17/2012 10:00 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2012

Redesigning the Social Sector

In a blog last year, I wrote about a trip to China as an advisor to BSR's Ci Yuan ( On that trip, a leader in their nascent philanthropic community asked if China should introduce the idea of boards to their social sector. The question caught me by surprise -- it had never occurred to me that a nonprofit sector could exist without them.

It gives one pause -- what other parts of the sector that we take for granted in the United States are productive and worthy of exporting, and which should we both try to change here and avoid exporting? We make a lot of assumptions and many, at second glance, may not be the most productive.

Next month, Ci Yuan is convening leaders from across the U.S. social sector to take a critical look at the assumptions we all use to ground our work. This will both generate a report for the Chinese government and social sector but also, hopefully, spark some dialogue about how we may need to change here in the U.S.

There are major assumptions we take for granted about the role of nonprofit sector and our government. We assume that the government shouldn't be the only provider of social services but also that they can outsource programs to nonprofits. We allow nonprofits to advocate for policy but not for politicians. We exempt nonprofits from paying taxes if their revenue is mission related and make it relatively easy to get and maintain nonprofit status.

Similarly, we have come to accept many assumptions about the role of companies in social change. Like nonprofits, companies can have outsourced government work but unlike nonprofits we give companies almost unlimited lobbying rights. We also rely on business as the primary source of news, media, culture and healthcare.

Philanthropy also comes with a set of assumptions in our country, starting with the fact that charitable donations are tax deductible and foundations can maintain large endowments free of taxes. We also exempt the donation of time (volunteering) from labor laws and have different expectations of compensation at foundations than at nonprofits.

These are just some of the many assumptions that make up the foundation of how we think about social services and change in our country. Which ones would you recommended as best practices to the emerging sector in China? Which are productive and which are detrimental? Let us know via the survey and please share the survey link with your network so they can share their important perspective.