Like the “Wild West” of old, the charitable sector is a place of freedom where anyone with an idea focused on improving the common good can act and find a hearing. This is true even when the ideas are diametrically opposing social views.
In fact, one of the roles the sector plays in the greater society is to provide the “place” where ideas emerge, grow, mature, and are challenged until there is general agreement that the new vision should be adopted as social policy. The charitable sector can be viewed as the engine of change – the enemy of entropy.
Success in the sector requires the vision to see an alternative to the current situation. There needs to be the passion and courage to act and carry forward activities through the inevitable obstacles that arise. Those involved need clear goals and a compelling alternative view that motivates other people to join the effort.
The scale and formality of organizations in the sector ranges from the one-person start-up, putting together their first board of trustees, to inter- and multi-national charities with strong corporate cultures and multi-million dollar budgets. Colleges and universities, hospitals and health systems, a neighborhood watch, and religious organizations are a few examples of the enormous diversity in the sector.
Issues addressed by those involved in charitable sector work are often large, complex, and seemingly intractable. Education, health care, protecting the environment, advancing prevention and treatment of a variety of diseases, poverty and hunger, world peace, social justice, human rights, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ageism, creativity, and human aspiration are just a small sample of the areas of nonprofit activity.
On the other hand, the issues for a specific nonprofit can also be smaller, more straightforward, and the action more tangible, as represented in the following examples: a local “friends of” group that supports schools and the arts; a neighborhood soup kitchen that feeds those who are poor; or a community garden. These nonprofits have tremendous social value but are smaller in scale, more focused in mission, and often engaged in direct relief or a specific service. Often, issues addressed by nonprofits are those that cannot – or have not – been solved by the family, business, or the government.
The sector does not have nearly the financial resources of the private sector or government. The genius in the nonprofit sector is the ability to innovate, to provide seed capital, and to test new ideas, rather than having the financial wherewithal to fund ongoing services.
Activities within nonprofits frequently have a triple focus on prevention, service, and advocacy. In the case of pro-social activities such as the arts, prevention is replaced by the need to recruit people to these activities. For example, organizations focused on specific diseases (such as a heart association) seek to prevent heart disease and its related problems. They often serve those who suffer from the disease. This might be direct service (providing oxygen to those who are without health insurance, for instance) or indirect (such as developing a clearinghouse of information). Finally, the organization seeks to mold the structures and public policies of the greater society to help in the mission; to prevent and to treat heart disease by advocating for new laws; or by providing public service ads on television.
A dance company would have a similar triple function. Instead of existing to prevent a problem, the dance organization promotes the benefits of dance and recruits more people to participate. They provide services such as dance classes, or the low-cost sale of tap shoes. Then the dance group might advocate with the local school board to make sure that dance is included in the curriculum.
There is no threshold for entering the nonprofit/charitable sector and there are no general educational or experience requirements for leading or participating. Anyone can enter and act in this social space. Charities bring together a wide variety of participants and volunteers from different educational, social, ethnic, historic, academic, and other backgrounds. It is the kind of mix that can lead to both conflict and creativity.
Finally, organizational action in the nonprofit sector helps to build one of the key muscles for democracy in a free society – social cohesion, sometimes called community or public capital. Through joint work focused on a common social goal, individuals of widely divergent backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences forge bonds of trust, communication, and skills in conflict resolution. These bonds of “cohesion” help to keep communities together when issues arise that would otherwise tear a community apart.
When the politically liberal environmental activist works next to the politically conservative industrialist on a community “fun run” for their children, they each gain a new perspective through common work. While they may not change one another’s worldview, often the experience of working together for the common good provides a bridge, opens communication, and establishes trust. The “other” becomes the “friend,” or at least the “neighbor” as they discover ways to work together.
Individuals working or volunteering in the nonprofit/charitable sector engage in a huge, diverse, complex, dynamic, and critically important part of society. While there are certainly technical and mechanical dimensions, this is primarily “people work.” A part of understanding Michigan’s story of philanthropy is in knowing how to value the quality of the heart, the social intelligence, and the hard work of the many individuals involved, both as volunteers and as professionals over time.
Video: Leaders discuss the use of human, financial, and knowledge resources in Michigan philanthropy.