Nonprofits are: PRODUCTIVE

By on January 10, 2013

This post is one in a series exploring each of the seven attributes – being productive, empowering, effective, enriching, reliable, responsive, and caring – revealed in the Listening Post’s Nonprofit Values Survey in detail. Please visit the Nonprofit Values overview page to browse our other items from this initiative, including the full report, blog posts, and outreach materials, and follow us on Twitter or Facebook to join the conversation.

As discussed in the recent report “What Do Nonprofits Stand For? Renewing the nonprofit value commitment,” this is a critical time for the nonprofit sector. The challenges faced by nonprofit organizations across the U.S. – from caps on the charitable deduction to the imposition of new fees by state and local governments – has created both a challenge to the health of the sector and an opportunity for nonprofits to recommit to the special values that make them such an important part of the American fabric. A crucial part of that recommitment will be a renewed effort to communicate those values in an effective way to stakeholders outside the sector.
The report was based on a survey of nonprofit leaders around the country which attempted to take the first step toward this renewal by identifying what those consensus values were. The survey did, in fact, find that seven values – being productive, empowering, effective, enriching, reliable, responsive, and caring – form the core of the nonprofit value proposition. Despite this consensus, there were some significant differences in the relative importance assigned to the different values, and the perception of how well survey respondents felt their organizations embodied them.

The Johns Hopkins Nonprofit Values Survey found that there was a significant drop-off in the perception among nonprofit leaders in of the importance of being productive, when compared to most of the other values. In fact, only 52 percent of survey respondents rated being productive, which was defined for the purposes of the survey as “creating jobs and economic value, enhancing economic vitality, and mobilizing assets to address public problems.” as a “very important” value within the sector, compared with over 70 percent for effective, responsive, reliable, and caring. Given the current emphasis on job creation and economic recovery, this could prove particularly problematic when it comes to advocacy efforts on the part of the nonprofit sector.

Not surprisingly, given the lower level of emphasis placed on this value, only 25 percent felt that their organization embodied productivity “very well.”

Of course, this may simply reflect the fact that many in the nonprofit sector are not inclined to think of their work or their organizations in terms of their economic function. However, given the ongoing budget crisis and the resulting efforts to close budgetary gaps at the expense of nonprofits, embracing and communicating the important and significant economic impact of the sector will be a critical aspect of fighting back against these attacks.
Fortunately, available data illustrates this impact in spades. In particular, as discussed in the third edition of Center Director Lester Salamon’s book “America’s Nonprofit Sector: A Primer,” America’s 1,546,604 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organizations represent 75 million paid and volunteer workers, and generate 1.7 trillion dollars in revenue. Given the current emphasis on jobs and job creation, an even more powerful and timely statistic that we can take from these data is that, when translated into full-time-equivalent workers, the nonprofit sector’s paid and volunteer employment is revealed as the third largest workforce of all U.S. industries.
Nonprofits have not fully forgotten the importance of their economic role, and sector advocates have effectively emphasized this aspect of the sector to protect it against austerity measures and other attacks. An important and instructive example of this strategy was outlined by the National Assembly of States Arts Agencies in a 2009 report, which recommended that organizations “Illustrate the ways your constituents contribute to economic productivity, educational success and community well-being. A small investment in the arts can help build the economic strength of a community by promoting tourism, revitalizing the core commercial district and attracting businesses to expand local job opportunities.”
The report goes on to outline ways for arts organizations to think about their economic impact creatively (many of which can be adapted to apply to other types of nonprofit organizations as well):

  • “Cultural development plays a central role in urban revitalization and community renewal strategies.
    The arts attract businesses, visitors and new residents, contributing to increased tax revenues.
  • Cultural offerings enhance the market appeal of an area. In the new economy, business success depends on an ability to recruit skilled knowledge workers. The arts and cultural offerings of a region are often considered by companies and workers when deciding where to relocate.
  • The arts attract tourism dollars. Public support of cultural tourism plays a critical role in community revitalization as well as the expansion of tourism – one of the fastest-growing economic markets in the country today.”

As advocates have begun to embrace the overall economic impact of the arts – from enhancing neighborhoods and fighting urban flight, to drawing creative for-profit industry – they have seen marked success. As detailed in this piece from the Pew Center on the States: “In recent years, art for art’s sake has been a tough sell in budget battles around the country: Overall, there has been a 37 percent drop in funding for state arts agencies since 2001.Hoping to turn the tide, arts advocates have been focusing on art for the economy’s sake, and that strategy is beginning to pay off. Even as state budgets remain tight, estimates from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies show state arts funding increased by an average of 8.8 percent in the budget year that began in most states July 1.” Examples like this demonstrate the importance of nonprofit sector players embracing and communicating their role in ensuring the economic health of their communities and of the nation as a whole.
Nonprofits have important stories to tell about all aspects of their work and about how they embody and embrace each of the seven nonprofit values, but keeping in mind the powerful forces at work within the overall U.S. economic and political zeitgeist, nonprofit advocates would be well advised to not forget about the power these wield as job creators and in enhancing the economic health of their communities. The power of THAT story among those charged with improving the health of the U.S. economy cannot be ignored.
Please join us on Twitter and Facebook to share how you would use the productivity of the sector to counter the funding and policy challenges it faces today.