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What Really Is the Role of a Nonprofit?

As a fundraising advisor, development economist, and public-private partnerships proponent, I often find myself in the middle of a perpetual debate: what really IS the role of a nonprofit?

Having worked with dozens, dare I say hundreds, of nonprofits over my career, and also having spent time working for one as well, I still scratch my head when contemplating their existence. 
 
Don’t get me wrong. There are many amazing nonprofits that I’ve worked with over the years, with work product that could rival any silicon valley tech company, yet the existential question about civil society’s role vis-a-vis that of government or the private sector comes up countless times in the partnership work I do. When disaster strikes, is it the government’s responsibility to provide for its people? Some on the left would say that almost always, it is. Yet even in the richest countries of the world, governments aren’t able to provide for their people in every way possible. Who fills the gap? Nonprofits. Businesses do too, and increasingly so. There’s always more need, though. When will the need end? When will the “job” of nonprofits ever stop? Should it stop? Shouldn’t nonprofits aim to work themselves out of a “job” such that the need for their involvement doesn’t exist anymore?

I’ve always thought that nonprofits should focus more of their effort on solving systemic problems so the need for nonprofits as saviors, in a way dissipates. But isn’t that short sighted? Won’t there always be a need for more support, more disaster relief, more access to healthcare, more support for disadvantaged communities, more food for those who go without, more clean water access, more fortified shelters, more, more more? Yes. The answer is Yes. The question remains, though, is a nonprofit the right type of organization to respond to all of that need? Should an organization spend resources to bring in more resources to then hand those resources to others? Are there more efficient ways for those resources to go to those in need?

When looking at the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have nots’ dilemma, and without getting political here, we can agree that there will always be a gap to fill to ensure the ‘have nots’ get access to basic necessities and then some. I still go back to the question of responsibility. I know this is the age-old challenge that pervades politics, business and social responsibility, but it’s something I grapple with too as a partnerships advisor. How do I help identify proper roles and responsibilities for organizations looking for creative ways to give back to society? Do I push the private sector to do more, give more, be more available in the market (beyond for consumption purposes only), or do I push the public sector to provide more resources for civil society to step in and fill the gaps? Do I encourage civil society to fundraise more from both private and public sectors both to keep their work moving forward but also to ensure marginalized communities get what they need? WILL they get what they need if the civil society acts alone? Truth be told, when disaster strikes, or when needs are palpable among communities across the world, the first organizations to show up and support are always from civil society, mixed in with the occasional government or private actor. Could that model ever change? Is the growth of social enterprise something that could turn this typical model on its head? In some case I think the answer is yes. In others it’s hard to imagine social enterprises being able to respond to urgent needs like hunger, extreme poverty, climate disasters or humanitarian challenges the way civil society can. The same goes for the private sector. Yet, and this is a big yet in my view, there does need to be a shift in how civil society views its role in the long term. Thinking about ways to work themselves out of a job SHOULD be part of their future scanning. Leveraging relationships with the private and public sectors can certainly help with this transition.

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