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Nonprofits Make a Splash for “Our Common Future”

Hi! I’m back. I’ve been studying Globalization and enjoying two jobs— one in the corporate world and one in the nonprofit. All of this made me ripe for a paradigm-shifting vision I beheld at Our Common Future last week in Detroit.

This year’s annual conference for nonprofits was organized by the Council of Michigan Foundations, Michigan Non-Profit Association, and Independent Sector. Over 1,400 amazing people were there and I was thrilled to attend the second day of the event. 

In one workshop, presenters asked nonprofit leaders to consider telling their stories to show economic impactFor example, the Arts and Economic Prosperity 5 Study detailed expenditures and attendance data from 14,439 arts and culture nonprofits. Overall, these organizations pumped $63.8 billion into the economy. Coupled with a media campaign to communicate the results to decision makers, Americans for the Arts received an allocation of $145 million from the House Appropriations Committee under an administration wanting to terminate funding altogether. 

Some of the audience pushed back. They weren’t sure this approach applied to their nonprofits. Numbers tell one side of a story and ethnographic data tells another. We need both. Here, we’re talking about quantitative data. Dan Cardinali, CEO of Independent Sector, responded to the audience’s doubts by stating that, “Showing your economic impact is another— not the only— tool in your toolbox for making a case to donors.”

But there is another reason why nonprofits might jump on using data to show economic impact. It has to do with the symbiotic relationship between corporations and nonprofits. Many corporations give generously to nonprofits. Some have their own robust foundations. Some send staff to help nonprofits. Some reward employees with time for giving. And corporations speak in data.

Corporations use data not only to inform their strategy but to tell the story of how their businesses help our communities, i.e., their social impact. DTE Energy’s Corporate Citizenship Report, for example, reveals increased safety, reduced carbon emissions, greater investment in renewable energy, increased spending on Michigan-based suppliers, and more. Corporations are setting sustainability and social responsibility goals, gathering data to track their progress, and communicating results to their customers.

Nonprofits need to communicate economic impact just as much as corporations need to communicate social benefits. Data helps. The more fluently nonprofits speak in terms of economic impact— with data — the sooner they can generate socially beneficial public policy and help influence corporate strategy. As nonprofits become better businesses, corporations become better servants. To learn from each other, both must play their part.

One objection to economic indicators included the concern that nonprofits express our civil, not market, society. As one participant pointed out, economic data often masks what’s relevant to her mission, viz., equity for diverse populations. The economic impact data presented in the workshop did not distinguish by race, gender, age, or ethnicity. Maybe that data is there, but it wasn’t part of the economic impact story.

Similarly, corporations need to do a better job of sharing data on diversity within their own ranks. “Even as California’s Silicon Valley struggles with diversity and discrimination, most of the area’s tech companies won’t share that basic data with the public.” Hidden Figures: How Silicon Valley Keeps Diversity Data Secret. I believe corporations and nonprofits will become stronger by learning from each other and this includes using data that is meaningful to both.

As this symbiotic trend reaches critical mass, like a wave cresting, only to turn itself inside out, a new version of our former society might emerge. With it, our collective needs can influence government action and corporate strategy. Universal Basic Income? Companies making and doing more of what’s good for us and the planet? The social and environmental damage left for nonprofits to clean up in the wake of economic disparity could shrink. We’ll reach a tipping point where caring’s economic value surpasses consumption’s.

Maybe this vision is obvious to others and I’m only catching up. Maybe it’s silly and I’m just naive. Still, it’s what I felt surfacing at this conference. And it was refreshing. I carried the image of a tsunami-sized paradigm-shift from the workshop into the ballroom where next year’s conference theme was announced. Upswell. What synchronicity. 

So now, as our country enters its most disruptive phase of globalization — one that will dwarf the pains and gains of today’s deindustrialization with those of tomorrow’s telepresence and telerobotics — we will come out better than before. It won’t be easy but the tide of corporate-nonprofit symbiosis is swelling and lifting us up with it. We’ll transform priorities in the process. Public policy, corporate strategy, and nonprofit mission will align to reflect the highest values of “our common future”.  Now let’s go get some data.

LauRen I. Zinn consults to leaders developing organizations with social impact


One thought on “Nonprofits Make a Splash for “Our Common Future”

  1. Lauren Zinn, you never cease to amaze me with your remarkable energies! You take action! You do what is best for our changing, wild world and you do it all with great passion!

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