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Reinventing Nonprofits

When I originally wrote my nonprofit textbook in 1979, it was in the form of a series of mimeographed chapters duplicated and shared with a class of Harvard University students.  There was no book that included what I wanted to teach, so I wrote my own material.  In 1983, when Prentice Hall published these chapters in book form, I assumed that I and others would use it for the few years the volume stayed in print.  Now in 2018, as I contemplate whether I might need to come out with a fifth edition to supplant the one from 2012, I marvel at how the field of nonprofits has had to reinvent itself over and over again and I have had to keep up.

There are countless examples over those 35 years, but let me share a few:

  • The most obvious is technology.  The original edition of the book had a chapter on the use of computers in nonprofits.  I soon realized that it made no sense to include such material in a book that would be used for many years. Can you even remember when punch cards were used for recording information or when a word processing machine came with its own built-in chair? Changes in technology have outstripped the pace of rewriting textbooks. Perhaps my favorite change is that administrators no longer have to worry about a systems crash denying them access to critical data files the night before that important board meeting.  Now, instead of storing data in a giant server in the office, files sit safely in something called a “cloud” that is exponentially more reliable.
  • Of the chapters that did survive, none went through more revisions than the marketing chapter.  From outlining how to place press releases in print media in the 1983 edition to discussing how to gain attention through social media in the 2012 edition, every facet of marketing has evolved.  While these changes have democratized the process of reaching the public, they have also exponentially increased the “noise” above which a nonprofit’s message must reach.
  • Institutional funders like foundations have changed over the decades as has the way nonprofits interact with them. Remember the good old days of “responsive grant-making” when foundation published guidelines and welcomed proposals from anyone. Today that has given way in many cases to “initiative grant-making,” where much of a foundation’s giving portfolio is pre-assigned to organizations that can carry out an initiative on the funder’s behalf.
  • Many funders have also shifted their emphasis from ensuring the health and “excellence” of nonprofit organizations to placing greater emphasis on analyzing the constituents these organizations serve. Organizations’ value is increasingly measured by its effectiveness in reaching a broad constituency.  Some have described this shift as moving from supply-side to demand-oriented grant-making.
  • A related development is the changing approach to community-based programming.  In the 1983 edition, I reflected what the field referred to as “outreach” – a benevolent image of nonprofits providing largesse to disenfranchised populations – a kind of charitable act of giving on the one hand and taking on the other.  Today, the field talks about “connecting” with communities – a transaction in which both parties gain.

Do you have more examples of reinvention to share? Please share your examples in the comments below.

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