Nonprofit sector vital to recovery

Tom Lambeth
Tom Lambeth

 [Editor’s note: The following is the first of three excerpts from the keynote address given at the 2010 statewide conference of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits on Sept. 30 by Tom  Lambeth, senior fellow and former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem.]

I believe the nonprofit community may be more important today than it ever has been.

That is, of course, because of difficult economic times but it is also because we are at risk of losing our faith in our democratic system, of losing faith in our ability to act as “we the people.”

And in a world in which we now compete with other nations, we are at risk of losing the competitive advantage that we have as a nation that mixes a commitment to a free market with a commitment to social justice.

We have thrived in this state because we have valued the mix of for-profit and not-for-profit institutions. That must continue.

Our state is relatively poor in dollars and rich in determination to be better — an economically challenged state for most of our history, but one that has been able to create institutions of excellence in education and the arts and in protecting natural resources.

But what about those challenges and how we conquer them rather than be conquered by them?

Recently I sat in a board meeting where we talked about the difficulty in recruiting younger members. The chair of the committee declared, and others agreed, that young people are just not volunteering.

Now, I know that many young people are volunteering. I am proud that at the top of the list of public universities in this nation, and near the top of all universities in the country in the recruiting of Peace Corps volunteers and Teach for America volunteers is a North Carolina institution. [Lambeth is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]

Proud also to be a graduate of that university and proud that, at the same university, students have created more than 600 nonprofit organizations.

And I know that I could find similar activity in many other North Carolina colleges and universities.

Yet there is good evidence that a younger generation is not so eager to volunteer.

If nonprofits in North Carolina will redouble their efforts to recruit younger people to their work – and that means listening to them as well – it will be an important contribution to the future of our state.

Let me give you just a little more distressing news about younger leadership.

I sat in Raleigh last week with a breakfast group talking about how we could respond to the desire of a group of younger people across out state to have opportunities for leadership, to build networks to support their commitment to leadership and to have a necessary forum for their ideas.

During that meeting we discussed a small group of such young leaders that had been organized in recent years to be the seed corn of future leadership in our state, to keep our state creative and strong.

Half of those young people have now left North Carolina.

North Carolina nonprofits – whatever their mission – can contribute to that revitalizing and regenerative mission for effective and caring leadership in our state.

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