Perhaps no quality captures more effectively the distinctive character of nonprofit institutions and related voluntary citizen behavior that is the focus of our Center’s attention than the quality of resilience—the ability to withstand significant shifts in fortunes and challenges and find ways to persist in the pursuit of their missions.
This past year has certainly demonstrated this quality of the nonprofit and citizen sector over and over, from the sector’s role in responding to the refugee crisis triggered by the violence in Syria and Afghanistan, and the popular movements displaying solidarity in the face of terrorist attacks in places like Paris, California, and Beirut, or standing up for black lives in America’s inner cities; to the day-to-day struggles to improve the lives and prospects for people the world over.
For our part, we have attempted this past year, as in years past, to reflect this special quality of the sector we study in our own work, first by calling attention to it, and second by modeling it ourselves. This attempt is apparent in four facets of our work in particular over the past year.
#1: RESILIENCE AND ITS RISKS
Most obviously, resilience is once again the theme of the second edition of Center Director Lester Salamon’s Resilient Sector monograph published by Brookings Institution Press, which documents the striking resilience of the American nonprofit sector. But this time the emphasis on resilience comes with a twist. In The Resilient Sector Revisited: The New Challenge to Nonprofit America, Salamon argues that “A battle is on for the soul of America’s nonprofit sector” as the sector finds itself caught in a force field, buffeted by four powerful—but at least partly competing—impulses representing, respectively, the pressures of voluntarism, professionalism, civic activism, and commercialism. The sector’s organizations have responded resiliently to this combination of pressures, but in the end the commercial impulse seems to have gained the upper hand, with results that may be doing wonders for the sector’s survival, but may also be putting its distinctiveness at considerable risk. To offset this, Salamon recommends a “renewal strategy” that begins with a revitalization of the sector’s “value proposition,” and the set of key values that underlie it.
One of the clearest manifestations of the resilience of the U.S. nonprofit sector, as of its counterparts around the world, is its striking record of employment growth, which continued right through the recent recession and persists today. To help nonprofit leaders, policy-makers, and other stakeholders track the sector’s employment record and tell the sector’s story, the past year also saw the launch of the Beta version of the Center’s new, nonprofit employment interactive website, Nonprofit Works. Through this site, the extraordinary body of nonprofit employment data generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages will be available to every nonprofit executive, state nonprofit association leader, legislator, county executive, mayor, and city councilman in the nation at the click of a mouse, with the ability to fashion charts, graphs, pie charts and other graphic representations and make comparisons at the county, state, and national level overall and by field of nonprofit activity. Communications Associate Chelsea Newhouse has been diligently working with a web design firm to complete the second phase of this new tool, which we are confident will boost the visibility of the nonprofit sector and provide useful benchmarking information for all manner of nonprofit sector stakeholders.
#2: RESILIENCE THROUGH RESOURCES
A fundamental key to the resilience of the nonprofit sector is the sector’s ability to resource itself, to generate the financial and human resources it needs to carry out its work. Several components of our Center’s work over the past year have contributed to this facet of resilience.
#3: RESILIENCE THROUGH VISIBILITY
As important as financial and human resources to the sustainability and resilience of the nonprofit sector are the reputational resources generated by visibility and transparency. Improving the visibility and credibility of the nonprofit sector has long been a special focus of our Center at Johns Hopkins, and 2015 brought a number of major steps forward in this area as well. Milestone achievements here included the following:
#4: EXERCISING RESILIENCE
If resilience consists of adjusting to new realities and new possibilities, then our activities this past year involved not only documenting and contributing to the resilience of the nonprofit sector, but also exhibiting a bit of it ourselves. This opportunity arose from our involvement through the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Bologna Center, along with ten other partner institutions, in a European Union project to measure the scale and impact of the European “third sector.” Our initial task in this consortium was to formulate a consensus conceptualization of the “third sector” that could serve as the foundation for this Project’s work.
This responsibility gave us the opportunity to re-visit the definition of the “nonprofit sector” that we developed within the framework of the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project and that we have since managed to incorporate into the official international statistical system. That definition was forged in a different era, when the whole idea of a distinct nonprofit “sector” was still heavily contested, this set of institutions was largely invisible in official statistics, and virtually no account was being taken of the vast array of volunteer work that nonprofit organizations were mobilizing. We therefore made the strategic decision, in cooperation with our international team of Local Associates, to accept for our initial foray into putting the third sector onto the statistical map of the world the definition of a “nonprofit institution,” or NPI, already incorporated into the official System of National Accounts. That definition included only entities that were forbidden to distribute any profits they might generate to their directors, investors, or other stakeholders; but that embraced, at our insistence, the volunteer workers of these entities in addition to the paid workers.
The Third Sector Impact Project (TSI) in which we are now involved has provided a chance to take account of a broader set of institutions and behaviors that share with nonprofits a social purpose mission and that, like NPIs, occupy a social space outside the market, the state, and the family. Included here are cooperatives, mutuals, social enterprises, and unpaid individual activity beyond that undertaken through NPIs. Our problem, however, was that some cooperatives or mutuals are large commercial banks and insurance companies, the dividing line between social enterprises and plain vanilla for-profit companies is vague at best, and much work without pay is really unpaid family labor in informal businesses. It was therefore necessary to find a way to differentiate the in-scope from the out-of-scope such institutions and behaviors.
Fortunately, with help from our TSI Project team, we have now managed to formulate such a consensus conceptualization of a broader “third sector” or “social economy” that could potentially be integrated into the national accounts statistical system. This conceptualization is available in a Policy Brief and a slightly longer Working Paper.
A HOLIDAY WISH
All of us at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies are in awe of the resilience of the world’s “third,” or “social economy,” sector and fervently hope that your organization can continue to find over the coming year the right balance between the steps that ensure your resilience and the ones that preserve and protect your values.
We wish you and yours peace, joy, and resilience this holiday season and in 2016!
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