Understanding What Nonprofits Do

By Jack Shand, Executive Partner. The Portage Group

In an earlier article on The Characteristics of Executive Leadership, I outlined what employees in the nonprofit sector do. But what do nonprofit organizations do?

First, two observations: Observation one is that many nonprofit organizations feel they are unique. Board leaders tell me this frequently when they are starting a hiring process for a new chief staff executive. Observation two is that many working in the nonprofit sector have struggled at some point in explaining exactly what it is their organization does, and how it adds value. Is it about reciting the mission statement perfectly?

So let's try and build understanding of what goes on in this sector and the "business" nonprofit organizations — associations and charities — are in.

Advocacy is a universal aim for organizations in the sector. Advocacy can focus on a myriad of audiences; it is not only about (and in some cases is not at all about) lobbying governments. Advocacy can be directed to promoting a profession, shaping legislation, engaging stakeholders, dialogue with and through media, or mobilizing a community.

The health charity advocates for better health, quality care, and an early cure. The social welfare organization advocates for better lives and better communities. The business association advocates for the conditions that are catalysts for jobs, investment, and a strong economy. The professional association advocates for better practices, higher standards, and quality performance. Think of an NGO, philanthropic cause, regulatory body, business or professional association and they are doing advocacy.

In my experience, the leaders and stakeholders of all nonprofits are asking that their interests be given influence, put on the map, and have a voice at the table.

Connectivity is the second universal goal shared by nonprofits. Since centuries before the Modern Era, in ancient Egypt and earlier, there is a rich and empowering history of people coalescing around an interest whether it be the arts, culture, or a trade. Indeed, isn't the principal aim of all nonprofit organizations to provide a forum for individuals to engage on matters they share in common? Look at the community cable television station announcements for local events. From places of worship, to sporting pursuits, to clubs, to fundraising events, in all cases it reinforces that the bringing together of people is alive and well. Networking in all its forms — B2B, social media, mentorship — is growing.

Education is the third business nonprofit organizations share. Organizations gather, house, produce and share knowledge. In the United States and Canada, associations and charities are a leading source of adult education and training, possibly second only to private and public educational institutions.

Consider the sizeable resources every city of consequence in the world devotes to attracting conventions, conferences, seminars, symposia, and workshops — events owned in many cases by associations.

For members of professions, from architects to zoologists, there is the impressive business of professional publications, accreditation, and certification that is developed and delivered by nonprofits. In fact for some time there has been a trend where professional associations and educational institutions are forming strategic alliances, including MBA programs, with curriculum in specialist tracks geared to human resource professionals, management consultants, insurance brokers and others.

There is a combined effect of this activity, recognized in constitutions and by democratic governments throughout the world. Nonprofit organizations are special, not in the unpleasant nuance of special interest, but because of the value associations and charities bring to society. Unconvinced? Then think of the tax-exempt status enjoyed by all organizations in this sector. Consider as well the privileged access the sector has to governments. Governments recognize that the organizations comprising this sector add real value to good policy making and to bettering society. Simply, nonprofit organizations contribute to and are needed by society, and their special role has been validated by governments. When you are next asked about what nonprofit organizations do, what your association or charity does, remember the valued work that we have in common:




If you work for an association or a charity, here is our universal business card. It is a membership card we all share because it well symbolizes what nonprofit organizations do, our lead position doing it, and the passion we bring to our work.

© Jack Shand and The Portage Group 2015.