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The Nonprofit Leader’s Big Break

Public-Sector-vs.-Private-SectorThe role of the nonprofit is in a transition, especially for those who seek to lead within this world. For the first time in modern history, opportunities to lead within the nonprofit sector are being availed with new levels of support, which provide the sector with benefit, relevance and sustainability in a rapidly changing intersectoral environment. Contemporary public policies will provide these opportunities to nonprofit leaders should the nonprofit sector enable itself to capitalize on this “big break.”

The federal government bestows the 501(c) tax status upon qualifying nonprofit organizations that seek to fill the gaps between the private and public sectors. What we call the “nonprofit world” is what many would describe as the service provider for those who are not eligible for government aid and not serviced by private sector entities seeking profit. Nonprofit organizations willing to step into this median role are granted a uniquely subsidized tax status.

What many individuals may not realize is that nonprofits are not exempt from profit; rather, they are exempt from profiting in areas that are unrelated to their organization’s core mission. This places nonprofit leaders in a precarious position, where they must learn to lead on the fine line between public sector values and privatized business models.

For instance, the public sector leader has always been constrained by bureaucracy, lack of motivating factors and personnel systems that protect tenured employees. The private sector leader must stay competitive, progressive and relative, keeping employees on track in an ever-changing world of choice and change. The nonprofit leader falls right in the middle, having to strike a balance in a world of scarce resources, governmental restrictions and the inability to compete with private sector resources. Many nonprofit leaders have not found this balance, which has led to the paralysis in many parts of the sector.

As public policies are mandated upon all sectors from federal, state and local governments, the capacity of the nonprofit organization continues to expand with openings to pick up the pieces. Many policies and values currently being articulated by lawmakers, such as healthcare, have been the cornerstone missions of many leading nonprofits for decades. The public sector’s inability to immediately meet such demands due to lack of capital and reach affords many nonprofits with an opportunity to step in and accept the slack. This can provide relevance, opportunities for leadership and funding for many nonprofits enabling their missions to be carried out in a more holistic manner.

What does this mean for contemporary nonprofit leaders? Opportunity. Until recent years, many nonprofits grappled with the issue of relevance. That is not to say that their core missions and values were not relevant. What it means is that opportunities were not offered to play larger roles, supported by the public sector, in carrying out the mission and message that these nonprofit entities were chartered to carry.

Capable nonprofit leaders must be able to navigate change away from the static norms that often paralyze organizations. The new opportunities presented to nonprofit leaders afford an accepted window of adoption for organizational, sustainable change within the sector. As a start, three opportunities must be seized by nonprofit leaders and appropriately implemented within nonprofit organizations.

First, this “big break” for nonprofit leaders is realistic only for those who understand their role as a “median” leader. The traditional “middle child syndrome” echoed by many nonprofit leaders is no longer acceptable. Rather, by embracing the best of all sectors, wily nonprofit heads will be provided with tremendous opportunities to carry out their missions. Public sector partners are willing to provide higher levels of support through increased contractual partnerships, oftentimes their only option, which must be infused into human capital resources. Nonprofit leaders must find competitive compensation packages for employees, similar to the private sector, without relying upon their organization’s mission to supplement tangible personal benefits.

Second, nonprofit leaders must become advocates of their profession, not their cause. As opposed to pushing public policies geared myopically towards one organization’s self interest, advocate as a resource to decision-makers. Taking a proactive role towards advocacy, offering assistance and informational resources as a “one-stop contact” can become an indispensible resource to lawmakers. Stop asking for something and start providing policy information and resources without strings attached. Seeing advocacy as an “offensive” strategy verses a “defensive” reaction will pay long-range dividends. When the time comes to actually ask for a tangible deliverable by lawmakers that will benefit the charter and nonprofit mission, the request will become more welcomed. The public sector must see the nonprofit world as a partner and colleague as opposed to a narrowly focused special interest.

Finally, do not be opposed to sharing resources or outsourcing. Within this period of economic recovery, many nonprofit jobs have been eliminated due to declines in funding. However, what many leaders in the nonprofit world fail to embrace is the commonalities that exist amongst their fellow sector partners. Communications, event planning, fundraising and marketing positions can be shared amongst multiple organizations. Overhead needs, such as office space and equipment leases, can be shared amongst multiple entities decreasing the overall commitment of each organization. After all, there is no reason why healthcare advocates cannot share space and copier leases with education reformists. By implementing practices of shared-resources, thereby decreasing overhead costs, more funds can be devoted to the core mission and bottom line of the organization.

This “big break” for nonprofits comes from a period of realization on the part of the public sector. This self-actualization is the public sector’s understanding that it cannot be all things, all answers and all resources to all people. Rather, it needs to be open to sharing responsibilities with private and nonprofit sector partners. The public sector is ready to share this responsibility, and the nonprofit sector is the trusted resource of choice. This is the break that many nonprofits have patiently waited for; yet, it’s up to the sector itself to break a proverbial leg in the spotlight.


Author: Dr. Matthew Wheeler serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the Wheeler Company, a California based organization management and government affairs firm. Additionally, Dr. Wheeler serves as a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Price School of Public Policy, instructing classes in intersectoral leadership, nonprofit management and advocacy. Dr. Wheeler earned his masters and doctoral degrees in Policy, Planning and Development from USC.


Photo courtesy of http://www.asests.com/tag/public/.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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