Have you ever read something so smart you say to yourself, “I wish I’d written that?” Well, this is one of those times for me.
Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector (download PDF) summarizes the challenges that lie ahead for the sector as it adapts to 21st century demands. This smart thinking comes from La Piana Consulting’s research initiative, NonprofitNext, which was initiated to identify new trends for nonprofits to survive in a changing landscape.
The report asks: what territory will future nonprofits hold and how can they best adapt to fast-changing conditions? La Piana’s answer lies in adopting a futurist philosophy—one that allows risk taking, curiosity, and innovative approaches. With the advent of new technology and communication methods, it’s up to us to find new models and leave old ones behind.
As I read the Convergence report—and was lucky enough to have heard it directly from David La Piana, who presented the findings during a Center for Nonprofit Excellence webinar—it gave me food for thought on the implications of these trends for my own work and for leaders across the sector.
Here’s some of the implications I see in the Convergence trends:
- Demographic shifts redefine participation
The future landscape will consist of a new minority-majority eager to redefine policy priorities and tech-savvy Millennials who grew up empowered with the tools at hand to make their voices heard. This means a sea change in who participates in civil society, in who champions our causes, and indeed how causes are defined and advanced in the years to come.
It’s important to focus on the fact that causes resonate with the upcoming generation, rather than loyalty to a single organization. And as an organization’s identity becomes less important, defining mission and goals will take precedence. Causes and issues—not organizations—will dominate the marketplace of ideas in which potential donors and volunteers evaluate their options for engagement.
Another of my big takeaways is that demographic shifts must always be factored into strategy for social change movements, which are working to move issues across a longer timeline. The politics of marriage equality and immigrant integration may be decided by the current generation of voters, but the new social compacts these decisions create will be made real by the generations to come.
- Technological advances abound
Okay, this observation might seem like a big “duh” on the face of it, but consider the myriad ways in which technological innovations are playing out across the sector, especially as an ever-increasing number of voices participate in the dialogue.
In an age when one-way communication is outdated, control is an illusion because more and more voices are empowered to join the conversation through technology. In this new paradigm, a centralized notion of leadership is replaced with a more democratic community. The one-voice-to-many model is replaced by various perspectives that form a cohesive story. This creates a transparency that people identify with and respect. A new social capital emerges, leading to stronger networks and better outcomes.
Therefore, creating, seeding, and fostering a productive conversation becomes the new goal. It’s less about getting your message perfect and more about making sure your ambassadors are on board with the larger vision. Rather than pushing a message, nonprofits must help coordinate and direct a discussion that’s already happening. Aligning empowered voices is the new strategic communications mandate.
- Networks enable work to be organized in new ways
The ascendance of networks threatens traditional nonprofit structures with obsolescence. In a networked environment, the branding of issues instead of the branding of organizations means that movements are better built through networks of collaborative groups.
In other words, the ascendance of networks means that formal nonprofit organizations are no longer the only way to get things done. Trends like crowd-sourcing invite group participation, making the concept of organizational leadership that much more elusive. The work of social chance becomes a collaborative process that changes shape and form. Connection, rather than capital, becomes the vehicle for scale.
- Rising interest in civic engagement and volunteerism
One thing that’s clear is that people want to engage with causes they care about, but increasingly they want to do so on their own terms. Through network structures, potential donors and volunteers can participate on a new scale, transitioning from one-time contributors to long-term partners.
So it’s up to successful nonprofits to make opportunities available and causes adaptable to their evangelists in this evolving landscape. And that means staying flexible to versatile means of audience participation—be it through mobile devices, Twitter, or blogging.
Further, nonprofits must be willing to redefine the traditional relationships they’ve had with volunteers and activists. In addition to cultivating long-term relationships with supporters, they must also make room for opportunistic volunteering and micro-volunteering, which are emerging as the new baseline. More and more people are looking to engage with causes in ways that demand less of their time, In other words, our opportunity to engage people is inversely proportionate to the time commitment required.
- Sector boundaries are blurring
Nonprofits used to enjoy their own category and association with social causes, but that privilege is quickly disintegrating. As La Piana says, “Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business plan.”
The green movement, for example, has led massive changes in the field, as companies have adopted the cause as a means to advance their brand. With the growth of social ventures that combine 501(c)(3)s with eco-friendly product lines, we see the corporate sector developing its own stake in contributing to the good of the planet.
“These trends challenge nonprofits to maintain a tenuous hold or become undercapitalized competitors in a blended economy,” says La Piana. And how are nonprofits to raise the capital that will allow them to compete in this new marketplace of good causes? According to La Piana, they should “generate a surplus via fee generation or other entrepreneurial activities.” Which is to say: nonprofits can compete by straddling that line.
What will define the nonprofit when doing good becomes the norm across all sectors? What will be the unique social value of nonprofits? The real implication for cause-driven organizations is that we must poise for partnership, and understand the unique value our organizations bring to the table.
What about you? How are you adapting to the trends that are reshaping the social sector?
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Holly Minch is LightBox Collaborative’s chief engineer and founder. She wishes you a light-filled and happy holiday season.