Acton Institute Powerblog

Nonprofits Beware!

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A friend forwarded a Website link for The Nonprofit Congress recently that was downright scary. It appears to be the epitome of good intentions fraught with unintended consequences. Or perhaps the consequences are not unintended. The Congress is an apparent call to advocacy (i.e., political pressuring) within the National Council of Nonprofit Associations.

To the group’s credit, the “why” is a forthright statement of their view and values: The time has come for nonprofits of all sizes and scope to come together. The nonprofit charitable sector has long served our nation with distinction – from helping individuals survive (through health care, domestic violence centers, meals, and other human services) to helping local communities thrive (through artistic, cultural, educational, environmental, and other enriching services). Every American has been touched at one time or another by the work of a nonprofit. Good intentions.

Unintended consequences: Rather than championing the nonprofits’ unique abilities to provide individualized solutions, the Nonprofit Congress labels such efforts “fragmented and isolated” and frankly seems to be advocating that onerous “one size fits all” strategy for which government programs are so famous.

With that perspective, however, what this Nonprofit Congress wants to DO is not surprising: forge a collective identity based on shared values; develop a unified vision and message; and exercise a collective voice.

I would argue that a primary value of nonprofits is their lack of a collective identity or message and the freedom to contribute or help based on divergent values. That reality has been revealed within the Nonprofit Panel of Independent Sector — literally battling government agencies and federal policy makers for the continued independent existence of the nonprofit sector.

But with a Revere-like ‘call to arms,’ the council invites nonprofits to join the movement, forge a “stronger, bolder, more prominent role for nonprofits.” Hmmm … sounds like burgeoning political power to me, fashioned under the banner of “but we help people and communities. We do good things.”

Peter Drucker, arguably the most visionary management guru of this century, said that it is more important to do the right thing, than to do things right. Doing the right thing — helping individuals and communities–does not include sacrificing nonprofit uniqueness to leverage potential political muscle. And those who think so need to recalibrate their compassion quotient. The nonprofit sector may be “like herding cats,” but “unionizing” isn’t the strategy to help individuals or communities.

Karen Woods


  • Ms. Woods shows impeccable discernment when she states that the Nonprofit Congress “sounds like burgeoning political power to me.” That is one important aspect of this initiative as reflected in our tagline, “Many missions, one voice.”

    The Nonprofit Congress, which now has over 1,000 endorsers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, is rapidly gaining momentum and is on track to make the voice of the million plus small nonprofit groups in America heard in Washington, the 50 state capitals and throughout the republic.

    Alexis de Tocqueville, Lord Acton’s contemporary and friend, understood the important function of our sector when he noted “if men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the quality of conditions is increased.” A stronger, more visible nonprofit sector, in all its diversity, is a vital check on the absolute power Lord Acton feared.

    To draw on my own favorite insight from the late Peter Drucker, successful organizations do not try to solve their problems, they contain their problems and pursue opportunities. Let us pursue opportunities, such as the Nonprofit Congress, for the benefit of our society.

    Audrey R. Alvarado
    Executive Director
    National Council of Nonprofit Associations/Nonprofit Congress

  • Esther Baker

    I made a video of the national meeting and you can view it on google video: