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The Nonprofit Strategist

If Civil Society is Decaying, What Should Nonprofit Leaders Do?

In a recent Nonprofit Quarterly article, Steve Dubb observes that the basic idea that guides most nonprofits is that they exist to plug gaps in civil society, with the assumption that society is "more or less functional".

Whatever one thinks of the current political environment, it is clear that increases in productivity over the last 40 years have generated enormous wealth for a few, while wages for more than 90% of Americans have stagnated. Income inequality continues to grow and even accelerate, as it also arguably weakens and corrupts democratic institutions and norms.

None of these well-known things are good, and in fact they fundamentally challenge the nonprofit paradigm--the one that says with a little glue, some band aids and a splash of innovation, our sector can help people solve challenging social problems.

In the face of this, nonprofits continue to do much. Every day, they innovate (at least some do). They serve. They help people. They solve problems, piecemeal as it may be. But they can not do it alone, in classic American atomistic fashion.

What to do? Dubb argues that as part of the solution, nonprofits need to act boldly to help communities create wealth. Nonprofit leaders and their organizations need to attack the problem of wealth generation directly, and he effectively calls on nonprofits, social enterprises, employee-owned companies and cooperatives to marshal their capital and to re-invest in community-owned enterprises that deliver results for ordinary people: better jobs with better wages.

I once worked for an employee-owned publishing company. As a 24 year old it was exhilarating to own company stock and to realize that my 75 or so co-owners and I could compete successfully with billion dollar behemoths. 

All these years later, I love the idea of that publishing company more than ever (yes, it's still succeeding). I wish that more Americans had opportunities like this: to create, and to give back to society in an ethical and sustainable way. And writ large, the chance to participate in a movement to rebuild America in an economically and socially just way. 

And while Dubb's proposal is not a silver bullet, his big takeaway is correct. The economy is changing, big time. And nonprofits need to change, big time, not just to "keep up" but to successfully take on massive, historic social inequality.