Will we wither or winnow, or will our world be transformed?

In a recent article in The Nonprofit Quarterly headlined “Four Futures,” Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University, projects four future scenarios for the nonprofit sector in responding to the economic crisis:

  • A “Rescue Fantasy,” in which a magical, massive source of funding appears
  • A “Withering Winterland,” in which nonprofits starve to the point of ineffectiveness
  • “Arbitrary Winnowing,” a Darwinian view of the survival of the fittest; most likely the biggest and oldest, not necessarily the best or most important
  • “Transformation,” a total redesign of the sector that makes it stronger and more relevant for the long term.

Your imagination can easily fill in the details of the first three. And I suspect that most people will readily acknowledge that transformation is the great opportunity that faces us in this crisis situation. But what would it take to achieve the transformation of the nonprofit sector as a whole?

According to Dr. Light, it would take “… deliberate and collective action by the sector’s stakeholders: communities, philanthropists, governments, intermediaries, constituents, nonprofit associations, and boards.” Hmmmm…how likely is that? And toward what specific ends?

Dr. Light offers broad concepts like advocacy, dialogue, and flexibility, but no real strategies or tactics. He also offers a lot of ideas for how funders can change their approaches to better respond to the crisis, like research, collaboration, engaging youth, social entrepreneurship, etc. But he acknowledges that individual nonprofits are still going to make their own, separate decisions about their futures.

They sure are. And here is where the scenarios of withering and winnowing are far more likely outcomes than transformation. I fear that organizations will shave themselves so thin – by cutting human and other internal capacities – that there is nothing left of their effectiveness, wasting theirs and the community’s resources in the process. 

I also fear that many good organizations that have built the depth and breadth of the nonprofit sector over a quarter decade or more will not have the strength or vision to take up the challenge of transformation and so be winnowed out of existence, leaving gaps in services that will render the community poorer for the long run.

Here is where the ideas of one of my personal champions in creative thinking in the philanthropic sector resonates. Although Holly Sidford, principal consultant for the Helicon Collaborative, was speaking to a group of arts funders, her guidelines for evaluating the viability of institutional change proposals form a roadmap for any nonprofit contemplating transformation. Summarized from a publication in the Grantmakers in the Arts’ Library, these are Ms. Sidford’s “Five A’s”:

Analysis and Anticipation: Is the organization planning a variety of scenarios informed by good research and solid projections – including the loss of significant revenue?

Attitude: Is the organization forward-looking and genuinely focused on opportunities, or is it in a defensive, retrenchment mode?

Adaptability: Is there a track record of flexibility, seizing new opportunities, willingness to let go of what no longer works? Can the organization evolve?

Articulation: How clear is the plan going forward, and have stakeholders beyond the usual suspects been engaged in developing it? Are there genuinely new approaches and strategies in the plan?

Audacity: “Is there boldness in the plan equal to the seriousness of the situation?”

Addressing these five attributes is a good starting point for any nonprofit that genuinely acknowledges the need for transformation and has the heart to undertake it.

In my experience in working with arts organizations for nearly 20 years, those that have a history of continuous and entrepreneurial planning, that constantly have their ear to the ground regarding the changing environment and the needs and desires of their clients and customers, and that are fiercely self-critical, are those well-positioned for what needs to be done to secure the viability of their missions in the uncertain future.

Hopefully, these organizations will also have the audacity to plan far enough outside of the box to have a chance at transformative success.


  1. Len Steinbach

    Thank you for this post which is as succinctly on the mark as anything I have seen on the topic. In my work with primarily non-profit arts organizations, I continue to be amazed at their lack of analysis and resulting lost return of investment and diminishment of opportunity resulting from their easy-out cutbacks …perhaps the “withering” scenario applies. I was recently amused by the comments by the director of a museum forced to fold, who declared that they did everything they could…they even eliminated their marketing, in an attempt to survive. In a tactic I call “Innovation for Sustainability” I have been challenging institutions to clearly establish how they are responding to our new climate and how they are making themselves vital…and in the long term memorable and bonded… to their audience. That bold success (and demonstration of risk) is likely to differentiate an organization and engender support in this competitive environment seems lost on so many. Rather, “cocooning” seems the refuge of the timid. The only thing I might add is that where Dr.Light identifies a broad set of stakeholders needed to achieve transformation, I believe it is truly much narrower. I think it starts with a bold, open-minded, and imaginative organizational leader, supported by a Board whose membership (especially executive committee) is able to leap beyond its comfort zone. Additionally, funders and endowment managers must embrace new ideas and risk more than ever and accept learning from failure (not a habit one should get into) an acceptable investment strategy. I currently teach “The Business of Museums” at the graduate museum studies program at Johns Hopkins. I look forward to sharing your entry and seeing how my students respond.

  2. Len; thanks for your comments. Good to hear from you. Having just delivered a lecture to members of the current the Arts Management program at Baldwin Wallace College, and talking about survival for smaller organizations, the issues of honest self awareness, continuous planning, doubling down on your competitive advantage and building risk capital were among the salient topics discussed as attributes of organizations positioned to make it through the current and future cyclic economic downturns.

Comments are closed.