By Matthew Downey, program director, Nonprofit Services, Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy
CC image courtesy of “lexicon lexicon | ArtPrize 2010″ by Fellowship of the Rich on Flickr.
The other day, I was watching a video of a well-known national nonprofit/philanthropy thought leader who very proudly and confidently proclaimed: “Nonprofit organizations should work to put themselves out of business rather than work to simply sustain themselves.”
Of course, this wasn’t the first time I had heard this phrase. However, this time it really got me thinking. I tried to consider what this phrase actually means and I found myself questioning if it has any merit, validity or truth.
I came to the conclusion that this is a useless comment that should be disallowed from the nonprofit lexicon. It belongs on a short list of other all-too-commonly used phrases that, in my opinion, are misinformed, demeaning, and more harmful than helpful to nonprofit work.
A few other phrases on this list are “mission creep,” “chasing the money,” and “there are too many nonprofit organizations.” In this and future posts, I would like to deconstruct these phrases and explain why I think they should never have been conceived in the first place, beginning with “going out of business.”
“Nonprofit organizations should work to put themselves out of business.” In order to explain what is wrong with this statement, I must acknowledge that I understand what people are attempting to say when they use it.
It is true that there are nonprofit organizations with missions that work to rid society of moral and social injustices. I have dedicated a good bit of my career to working with social movement and social justice organizations whose leaders truly hope that one day they will succeed and their missions will no longer be valid. In these instances, yes, I agree, these organizations should hope that one day society will progress and they will no longer be needed.
However, the sad but honest truth is that society is a messy place and there will always be injustices that deserve our attention and resources. While the quest for civil rights, for example, has made great progress over the last number of decades, we are a long way off from living in a world where everyone is truly equal, majority privilege no longer exists, and the playing field has been leveled for all.
As the director of a nonprofit capacity building program, my advice to social movement and social justice organizations is: stay strong and plan for the long haul. Your work is hardly done. You are best off developing an organization that is prepared to sustain itself for many years to come.
What is more, when you consider all of the different sub-sectors of nonprofit organizations, it is important to point out that the majority of nonprofits will always have valid and important missions.
For example …
Education: There will always be a role for education. Children and adults will always need to learn. We will always have public and private schools, colleges and universities, job training and adult education programs.
Healthcare: There will always be the need for healthcare. There will always be disease. People will always get sick. Just when we find a remedy for one disease, a new one will appear. Mankind’s need for healthcare is not going away any time soon.
Arts and Culture: Art and culture will always exist. Art is one thing societies pass down from generation to generation. Art is how we learn from our past, deal with our present, and share with our future. Quite frankly, it is in mankind’s nature to express our feelings, fears, and emotions through art. It’s in our DNA. I would never want to live in a world without art.
Poverty: We have never known a time when poverty hasn’t been present in our society. Poverty is a fact of life. This doesn’t mean our work to improve the conditions of those living in poverty is invalid or in vain. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power to relieve human suffering, end homelessness and hunger, and provide effective pathways for individuals to improve the quality of life for themselves, their families, and their communities. But if history is any predictor of the future, we will always have people living in poverty among us.
Environment: The idealist in me would desperately like to believe that we will one day right all that is wrong with how we treat our environment, but as human beings we are prone to make mistakes. We are also prone to learning from our mistakes. There will always be a role for environmental organizations that do the research and advocacy to help us explore the tension between industry and environmental stewardship. We need our environmental organizations. They shouldn’t go out of business.
I could go on, but I think you get my point. For both better and worse, huge swaths of the nonprofit sector will always be valid. I understand and appreciate the sentiment that nonprofit organizations should put mission fulfillment above all other organizational decision making. The statement, “Nonprofit organizations should work to put themselves out of business,” is an attempt at holding organizations accountable to these missions. It is an attempt to counter our basic understanding of organizational theory which tells us the very nature of organizational behavior is a drive to sustain the organization for the sake of sustaining the organization. I get that part. But let’s also be real for a moment. Is it really helping any organization? Or is it simply making the person who says it sound deep and intellectual? Personally, I don’t think this phrase helps any of us do our work better or more effectively. I say, get rid of it and call it out when you hear it.