Commentary: Solving Nonprofits’ Thanksgiving Dinner Problem

Each Thanksgiving grandchildren sigh and explain the social sector to America. It goes something like this: first, Grandpa asks his eldest granddaughter about work. She excitedly talks about joining the staff of an innovative nonprofit. Then, from the other end of the table, Aunt Sally pipes up, “oh, it’s so great that you’re volunteering.” The granddaughter takes a deep breath and again explains that, in fact, she has a “real” job.

Many people who work in the nonprofit sector experienced similar moments with extended family — whether across a table or a video call. These moments remind us of a broader dynamic in our society: people simply do not understand the scale, complexity, and influence of the nonprofit sector. Most Americans do not recognize that nonprofits account for well over $1 trillion in economic activity every year. Nor do they realize that more than 13 million people are employed by nonprofits in the United States, about the same number as in manufacturing.

Somehow, a pillar of the American experiment is invisible. This ignorance is not merely an inconvenience for ambitious grandchildren, it is a challenge for the social contract. When citizens do not understand a part of their society, political leaders fail to cultivate it. We see the consequences of this inattention in the outdated policy frameworks and inadequate regulatory frameworks that hamper the social sector. 

I am far from the first to highlight that American society does not understand the social sector. Nonprofit leaders have wrestled with this misalignment for decades. So, what do we do about it?

There are many Thanksgiving dinner conversations to be had where one citizen explains to another. We thank those granddaughters for their patience. But our opportunity is bigger, for it is a moment when our society is actively reconsidering the social contract. Our shared understanding of two other pillars of society — business and government — is clearly in flux.

Corporate social responsibility has gone from slogan to strategic priority for employees, managers, and investors. As a consequence, the business world is stepping into social issues and politics in new and evolving ways. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted government’s role as an essential backstop, with governments spending money at scale once thought impossible. At the same time, we watch the crumbling capacity of our political leaders to reach agreement and to tackle long-term problems. 

As America rethinks business and government, we can do the same for the social sector. There’s more good news: We simply have better data. Improved data collection, data visualization techniques, and communications technologies offer an opportunity to weave together a once disparate story. The field has collected billions upon billions of pieces of data about nonprofits, foundations, grants, and volunteering opportunities. These data can ground conversation in facts and offers new opportunities for storytelling. 

We face another challenge. Typically, people do not tend to talk abstractly about nonprofits as a group. Instead, they use plain language to describe categories of nonprofits: homeless shelters, art museums, health clinics, or think tanks. How can we coherently describe what that diversity has in common? A shared tax status is a start; but we must admit that tax status is a weak foundation for storytelling. Instead, we must focus on purpose.

Purpose is our organizational reason for being. We are a set of organizations fundamentally devoted to making a better world. The social sector is unique in that it is private action for public purpose. The public purpose exhibited by countless businesses is to be celebrated, as are the countless hybrid models that blend different aspects of society together for good. But none of that need stop the social sector’s embrace of purpose as core to our identity.

We have what we need to tell a better Thanksgiving story. First, a ripe moment to rethink the roles of institutions in our society. Second, we have data to tell a richer story. Third, we have the clarity of knowing we are purpose first. 

The opportunity goes even deeper when we think about how this can help us understand ourselves. The social sector is more than just a pile of organizations. It is an ecosystem of players that interact through grants, collaborations, data sharing, and more. Even with our diversity and contradiction, we can be thought of as a coherent whole. 

Science has shown again and again that a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Ant colonies, crystals, and marketplaces each behave more like a distinct organism than a pile of components. Adding up their pieces doesn’t tell the whole story of their creative power. As we look at the aggregate of the social sector, we can begin to explore how we might do the same. New data and new visualizations offer a chance to reimagine an old story.  

And, along the way, we might make Thanksgiving dinner a bit easier for some of America’s future leaders.    

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Jacob Harold is executive vice president of Candid and oversaw the development of Candid’s new United States Social Sector Dashboard which you can find here.