Nonprofits urged to lead in face of crises

James Joseph
James Joseph

Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. – The nonprofit sector needs to step up and play a leadership role in addressing multiple social and global crises.

That was the message of James Joseph, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, in a keynote address to 700 people at the annual conference of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits on Sept. 22.

Leadership from the nonprofit sector is particularly important, Joseph said, because the U.S. is beset by economic and moral crises, with society and politics torn by “hatred of the other” and fear of differences, and a dominant mood of anxiety throughout the country.

Joseph outlined three big steps the nonprofit sector needs to take to become a leading force for change.

Those include shaping a “post-crisis narrative,” getting over the sector’s “fear of public life,” and recognizing that the assets of nonprofits include multiple forms of capital, not just financial capital.

A strong society, Joseph said, requires that the government, market and social sectors all are healthy and working together.

And nonprofits need to build a “more muscular presence,” he said.

Accounting for nearly 5 percent of gross domestic product in the U.S. and nearly 10 percent of the workforce, nonprofits represent “economic muscle” that few Americans recognize, said Joseph, a former president of the Council on Foundations and professor emeritus of the practice of public policy at Duke University.

The nonprofit sector’s “economic engine” includes $1.5 trillion in total revenue, $1.4 trillion in total expenses, and $2.5 trillion in total assets, he said,

“The sector could have even more impact,” he said, if its economic and social capital were not so “fragmented and thinly deployed.”

While the times “demand we find ways to more effectively collaborate,” he said, nonprofits seem to lack the “connective tissues” and practices to better connect to one another and to the government and business sectors.

Nonprofits can serve as an “independent moral voice,” he said, and need to develop messages to “build the national will” before they can develop strategies to address urgent social and global problems.

“We ignore poverty and inequality at our peril,” he said.

A second step nonprofits need to take, Joseph said, is to shed the “illusion” that they cannot take part in public-policy work.

The nonprofit sector is the “custodian of values and resources,” and the “conscience of our democracy,” he said.

Democracy “works best when it has three strong sectors,” he said, and the public interest is best served when nonprofits can “take part in the processes by which public policy is developed.”

Many nonprofits stay away from policy work because it can be complex and “not safe,” he said, exposing them to the risk of failure and criticism.

He advised nonprofits that get involved in policy work to recognize that it is part of the “political arena,” to base their work on facts and analysis, to be prepared to stick with that work for the long term, to be ready to compromise, to work with others, and to be “willing to accept the consequences.”

Finally, while the nonprofit sector reflects important civic and social values, as well as an “important idea,” it needs like all important ideas “to be reexamined from time to time,” Joseph said.

“We need to look critically at how nonprofits can use not just conventional assets, but other forms of capital,” he said, and be more creative and strategic in “deploying assets under our control.”

In addition to financial capital, for example, nonprofits possess “social capital” that includes their constituents and “new neighbors,” he said.

Nonprofits need “increased collaboration with those we seek to benefit,” and should be focusing on “what can we do with them” and “how can we work together,” he said.

He said racism reflects the “persistence of paternalism,” and he encouraged nonprofits to collaborate with local racial and ethnic organizations.

Nonprofits also should find ways to make productive use of their “reputational capital,” or the value of their good name, as well as their “moral capital.”

And nonprofits need to exercise leadership, Joseph said.

“Leadership begins with leaders who are willing to take risks,” he said. “It is time to take risks again.

Times of crisis, he said, often produce creativity and innovation.

The current crises represent an opportunity for nonprofits to be the “author of a new narrative,” he said, and develop a “new consciousness.”

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