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A New Culture for the Non Profit Sector: The Culture of Impact Brokers

Janice Epstein

In an online article titled “ Are Nonprofits Terrible Tech Clients?,” Holly Ross responds to the complaint that non profits are hard for technology providers (read: for-profits) to work with because they demand more and want it for less:
"Most funders won't pay admin costs. Donors expect increasingly large percentages of every dollar to go straight to program. We're not supposed to spend money on rent, phones, or, god forbid, computers. We're not supposed to hire the staff that keep our nonprofits humming -- the bookkeepers and admin folks. And we're not supposed to pay very much to anyone. That's the culture we live in. I don't like it. I wish our culture believed that nonprofits should be well-staffed and have adequate infrastructures. But that's not where we're at right now."

Ross sums up nicely many of the realities that make up the nonprofit culture, but there’s more. Many nonprofits are:

  • Behind the eight ball on cultural diversity
  • Afraid of discussing some organizational and sector truths
  • Competitive rather than cooperative
  • More focused on fundraising than mission
  • Slow decision-makers
  • Change averse

Why is it this way? Some possible reasons for these aspects of the nonprofit culture include: low resource availability; serving multiple constituent groups with varying motivations (service recipients; funders; board of directors); having oversight vs. partnership relationships with funders; having resources earmarked for program delivery not for building programs; being stuck in funding cycles (read: change can’t come until the next grant cycle).
Impact Brokers- a cooperative of nonprofits, investors, consultants and community partners coming together to improve our collective capacity to tackle complex social challenges- is providing a space for a different nonprofit culture to emerge. Impact Brokers circles are, for one thing, removing the stereotypical nonprofit competition from their tables. In Constellation Collaboration: A model for multi-organizational partnership, Tonya Surman writes about a collaboration model in which “self-interest is harnessed, valued and balanced with common interest.” Impact Brokers agrees with Surman’s idea that “coordinated mutual self-interest…[is] the best way to secure resources and goals.” (1) Currently, the Impact Brokers Boston circle is pursuing resources collectively to fund the technology needs of all the members. As a non-program cost, IT infrastructure is already difficult to fund. We are hopefully making it easier by making partners of organizations that could otherwise have been competitors. We are also organized to help organizations stay mission-focused. In addition to having the Impact Brokers consultants work on identifying, applying and managing the funding process, we have also identified IT projects that can yield time and resources to be redirected to mission-related issues! Care to share?

  • What issues are your organizations struggling with?
  • What could help to alleviate those struggles?
  • How is your organization keeping up with technology advances?

Do you have questions about what Impact Brokers is? For more information, read our Impact Brokers Introduction and Boston Circle Member and Partner Biographies . We will gladly answer specific questions and please know that we are still discovering it for ourselves. 1. Surman, Tonya. Constellation Collaboration: A model for multi-organizational partnership, Centre for Social Innovation, June 2006.



Transforming the culture of the nonprofit sector

Thanks Janice. This is a very interesting post on the state of nonprofit culture. I enjoyed the piece by Rosetta Thurman that you linked to using the “cultural diversity” tag. She put forward some of the best ideas I’ve seen about what we all need to do if we are going to transform the culture of the sector in ways that are more inclusive. We are the ones that have to take risks and move outside of our comfort zones if we are going to bring about the transformation we seek. Another area we have to rethink, as you suggest, is our concept of competition. We have been limited in our mission success by worrying so much about our organizational sustainability that we view ourselves in competition with each other for scarce resources. We need a new model that enables us to actively pursue opportunities for partnership with our “competitors.” The typology of nonprofit competition that Robin Ritchie and Charles Weinberg describe in their paper (tagged “competitive” in your post) helped me better understand why the competitive business model from the corporate sector isn’t so easily applied to the nonprofit sector but also why we as nonprofit practitioners need to move beyond our own fear of competition. Impact Brokers' model is a great experiment in finding partnership among those who might also view themselves as competitors. I look forward to hearing what others think!