The Leadership Gap in the Nonprofit Community

Do nonprofits need to work harder on building awareness for their missions — by doing a better job of explaining what they do?

Not long ago, I was speaking with nonprofit advocate Dan Pallotta about a topic that seems to come up more and more lately: Whether the nonprofit community needs to do a better job of standing up for itself.

Rarely does a week go by when I don’t see a Tweet from an association leader mentioning how hard it is to describe his or her job to people.

I’d take it a step further, actually, and say the community needs to do a better job of simply explaining what it does. Skeptical legislators are calling hearings about the Form 990, citing concerns about “compliance and transparency issues.” Rarely does a week go by when I don’t see a Tweet from an association leader mentioning how hard it is to describe his or her job to people. And Pallotta thinks the nonprofit sector suffers from a visibility problem so pronounced that we need something pretty close to a soup-to-nuts revision of federal nonprofit regulations. (More on that soon in Associations Now, but in the meantime I recommend his recent Wall Street Journal essay, “Why Can’t We Sell Charity Like We Sell Perfume?”)

And more: Last month Independent Sector released a report on nonprofit advocacy titled Beyond the Cause, which dedicated a lot of space to the sector’s need to better advocate for itself. In a Chronicle of Philanthropy story on the study, Independent Sector CEO Diana Aviv noted a leadership gap in this area, and that a central organization needs to champion nonprofits instead of playing defense. (Disclosure: ASAE is among the organizations those interviewed for the study identified as “leading efforts on sector-wide issues.”)

Why isn’t it happening? Part of the answer is tucked into page 126 of the 268-page study. Describing how interviewees explained the leadership gap, the report says:

Several CEOs of membership organizations noted the challenge of creating a fine balance between developing a broad consensus and moving forward with fewer supporters but a more potent message. One senior leader suggested that “exaggerated fears of negative consequences” can hold membership associations back from bold leadership.

That probably sounds familiar. Too risky. Too much potential for blowback. Too much difficulty in building consensus. Yet — and this is familiar too — there are plenty of risks in doing nothing and avoiding the question.

So how urgent do you think it is for the nonprofit community —and the association community in particular — to begin boldly advocating for itself? And how can it best do that?

(TMG archive photo)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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