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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

A Decade of Nonprofit Reflections

In April, I left the helm of the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, after ten years of building it into a force for strength and progress in serving the state’s nonprofit community. It was not easy to leave the Alliance, because I still consider the position of CEO of the Alliance to be one of the best anybody could have. To work every day with and for some of the most inspiring and passionate people dedicated to building a stronger Arizona was a dream come true. Only the opportunity I am now pursuing at Open Primaries to reform our political system could draw me away, because I know that nonprofits need a stronger partner in government in order to succeed.

So, as I made my transition – keep in mind that I am still working a nonprofit, just a c4 instead of a c3 – the moment gave me reason to reflect upon the 10 years of experience I had at the Alliance and with colleagues across the country through the National Council of Nonprofits. I first tried to remember what it was like in 2005. The economy was booming, and nonprofits were talking about creative ways to sustain themselves through social enterprise. Meanwhile, we were concerned about the huge leadership transition coming, as baby boomers, in the top positions at so many nonprofits, were heading into retirement years. And there was much talk about nonprofits running themselves more like businesses.

Wow, ten years passed, and here we are in 2015: social enterprise is the rage, the boomer retirement wave is a concern, and people are talking about nonprofits operating like businesses. Really?

But of course a once-in-a-century recession intervened, and the context of our work seems so different today. The stakes seem higher. The peril facing so many nonprofits is much greater today. The recession never ended for nonprofits.

So it feels like we are in a period when nonprofits must somehow re-invent themselves to survive. And the creativity and new ideas needed to pursue that re-invention mean that we should not be afraid to think out of the box. We should not be afraid to shed old paradigms that are no longer relevant.

I agree with all of that. But upon reflection about these issues, I also wish to issue some cautions, some consideration to keep in mind as you adapt to changes in this dynamic and sometimes volatile environment. In particular, I hope the leaders of today and tomorrow in our nonprofit community heed these three concerns:

  1. Nonprofits have unique value in the public space. In the rush to adopt new business models, adapt best business practices and introduce social enterprise ideas to our work, let us not forget that nonprofits are still qualitatively different than for-profits. There is a reason that nonprofits carve out this “third space” – apart from the pursuit of profit and apart from government. That reason is that we have a public value. We work for causes and goals that do not create private wealth and should not be directed by government. At our core, we are about doing things better together than doing them alone. AND we are about holding government accountable to the people. Our civic role is paramount. If we lose sight of that, I worry that we lose the entire rationale for our sector.
  2. Metrics should not stifle innovation. We hear much these days about the importance of impact measurement. I know that because we articulated that message repeatedly at the Alliance. And measurement is important. Our ability to make a case for WHY anyone should invest in our missions requires that we demonstrate our value with metrics. But I worry sometimes that this singular pursuit of measurement can prevent us from experimenting with ideas that cannot easily be measured. Ideas that are the font of creativity and innovation are tossed aside because no funder is willing to take a chance on them. How can you find out what works until you first tried the five things that don’t work? Experimentation belongs in our sector as much as it does anywhere else. So I hope the rush to impact measurement does not quash the courage to try new ideas and fail. Before he died, Peter Drucker, the for-profit business guru, wrote that the most creative business ideas in the 21st century would come from nonprofits. I agree with him, but that will not be possible if nonprofits and their investors are afraid to take chances.
  3. Nothing is more important than leadership. My final concern brings me full circle back to one of my first days at the Alliance, right after we launched the organization. We were recruiting our first members. And we had little to offer – few benefits, no programs. Essentially, we were asking nonprofit leaders to join the Alliance on the basis of a “belief” that we would one day become something important. One nonprofit executive we called told us something I would never forget: “I will be a lifetime supporter of the Alliance if you can do one thing: convince people in the community that nonprofit leaders are just as important and credible as big business leaders. We are not second-class leaders.” That comment motivated me every day of my ten years at the Alliance to celebrate the leaders, and hold up for admiration the work of the executives and board leaders of our nonprofits. And how those leaders have been tested during that decade, with the recession and social and political change swirling around them. I can tell you now that they are tired. They are stressed. And they need our support. They need everything we can offer them to lift them up as some of the hardest working leaders in our community. They should not be seen as second-class leaders. They should be seen as some of the most courageous leaders in our communities, working tirelessly to make Arizona the place we all imagine it can be. That sounds like first-class leadership to me.

It was truly an honor to lead the Alliance. Those ten years will always be a highlight of my life. And I am proud to continue serving the community, and the entire state, through a new nonprofit. I am not gone. I am still fighting for our communities. And I will never cease being the nonprofits’ loudest fan, their biggest champion. And with an eye on the issues I raised in this reflection, I am confident that they will continue to make Arizona and our nation stronger as we face the challenges of the 21st century.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog