A Global Perspective on the Nonprofit Sector

A few days ago, TSNE hosted a group of leading nonprofit capacity builders from Japan. It was fascinating to compare notes with our guests about the nonprofit sectors in these two economically and technologically-advanced societies (not to mention our mutual admiration for new Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka).

A few days ago, TSNE hosted a group of leading nonprofit capacity builders from Japan. It was fascinating to compare notes with our guests about the nonprofit sectors in these two economically and technologically-advanced societies (not to mention our mutual admiration for new Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka).

Last week, I was in San Francisco for the biennial conference of the NonprofitCenters Network, sharing experiences with colleagues from around the country and Canada. The stimulating conversations I had led me to reflect on the insularity of the U.S. third sector. In this era where the concept of globalization of the economy has become so ingrained that it’s already yesterday’s news, most of us toiling in the nonprofit vineyards are woefully ignorant about our counterparts elsewhere in the world.

U.S. Civil Society and Those Abroad

At one level, this self-centeredness is understandable. Even here at TSNE, where facilitating networks among nonprofits is a part of our focus, it’s difficult to find the time to share knowledge among our own programs, let alone keep track of innovations in civil society overseas. And the vast majority of U.S. nonprofits are very small businesses whose resources are locally generated and locally focused. They are not international conglomerates able to send teams of managers to Japan or Italy to study the latest management practices or production techniques.

Still, after talking with our Japanese counterparts, it seemed to me that we could all benefit from a broader perspective on how the United States stacks up in terms of the vitality and financial status of its nonprofit sector as compared to the rest of the world.

So I did some quick-and-dirty research, expecting to confirm my hypothesis that compared to other societies, we are light-years ahead in terms of philanthropy and voluntarism, and that we therefore ought to count our blessings. What I found, however, was a decidedly mixed bag.

Surprising Data

According to the Johns Hopkins University Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, the United States does rank at the top in terms of private giving, at 1.85% of Gross Domestic Product. We are ahead of No. 2 placed Israel at 1.34%, and in a different league entirely from Japan (0.22%) and Germany (0.13%). But when the value of volunteer time is factored in, at 2.18% we are far behind The Netherlands (4.70%), Sweden, Tanzania and the United Kingdom (2.97%), among others.

The Johns Hopkins researchers report that 22% of U.S. adults volunteer their time to nonprofits, compared to 52% in Norway, 30% in the United Kingdom and just 0.5% in Japan. In many other nations, however, government contributes significantly more to the nonprofit sector. U.S. nonprofits receive 30% of their support from government, compared to 64% in Germany, 47% in the United Kingdom and 45% in Japan. 

Nearly 10% of U.S. workers are employed in the third sector, the fourth highest percentage among the 36 countries in the study. (Taken as a whole, global nonprofit activity would rank as the world’s seventh largest economy).

Lessons to Be Learned?

What to make of all this data? First, although Americans are indeed generous individual givers and beneficiaries of a robust nonprofit sector, we do not represent the last word in civil society activity.

Despite the economic power of our sector, we must guard against being smug and insular, erroneously believing that we represent the epitome of associational democracy. Otherwise, we will not actively pursue the kind of systemic innovation that our sector needs, but will risk stagnation, following the path of so many formerly pre-eminent U.S. industries.

In the human service and educational sectors, we are already seeing an acceleration of for-profits encroaching onto what was formerly exclusive nonprofit turf. The rise of social entrepreneurship, the blurring of boundaries between commercial and charitable activities, and the constant drumbeat that nonprofits ought to “act more like businesses” are further warning signs that we need to proactively claim our own province. Otherwise, we will soon find ourselves reacting to agendas and strategies that others have put in place and set in motion.

Retaining Our Growing Edge

Learning from practitioners elsewhere in the world, especially in places where lack of access to resources demands creative responses, is one way for us to retain our “growing edge.”

So I urge you take that extra step. Seek out opportunities in your community or online to communicate with colleagues whose perspectives on the nonprofit sector are different from yours. For my part, I plan to keep in touch with my new friends from Japan. Maybe they’ll even come back to Boston for the World Series.

Your Thoughts

I’d love to hear from you on the following. With your permission I’d like to share your responses with other readers in our summer issue of the TSNe-Bulletin.

  • What lessons have you learned or are you learning from colleagues in other countries to continuously reenergize and renew your nonprofit strategies?

  • What have you learned from colleagues in your community or other sectors? 

  • What other strategies do you use to maintain your growing edge?

May-07

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