The Nonprofit of the Future Isn't

The emerging social good organization is engaged in the ever-changing dance between dreaming and designing and delivering.

Nonprofits as we know them today are dinosaurs. They are destined to disappear. I do not make this prediction lightly. After all, I have assisted more than five hundred nonprofits in my life.  The nonprofit world has been my life.  In the nonprofit world, I have met some of the most caring, compassionate, and visionary people.

It is a complex of internal and external factors that are leading to the demise of nonprofits as we know them today. Many of these are positive forces that are re-defining the nonprofit of the future.

Even the name ‘non-profit’ is destined to disappear. As nonprofits face dwindling resources and wake up to find that their funding models are not sustainable, we discover a bit belatedly that “we need to put the profit back into nonprofits.”   Nonprofits simply cannot operate outside of the practices that insure a sustainable future. As in the world of for-profit businesses, unsustainable business practices are the harbinger of the untimely demise of nonprofits.

Let’s take just a minute to look back at how we got here. Much of the momentum for nonprofits grew from our seeking an alternative to the greed and materialism that defined many corporate businesses. That was a good thing. Our intentions were right—we were going to make the world better and more equitable.

But, it was a fatal flaw that the nonprofits I grew up with, defined themselves in a negative way. I learned marketing in the arena of nonprofit food cooperatives. Our slogan was “food for people, not for profit.” Our logo was a clenched fist holding a bundle of wheat. We were defiant idealists. By golly, we were going to change the world!

We did, in many ways. But we, too often, became insular. We created a dualism between for-profit and non-profit worlds. Somehow, we saw ourselves as morally superior to our counterparts in corporate environments that were accountable to shareholders.

There is a positive reason why nonprofits as we know them will disappear. A ground-swelling movement in the business world is mitigating against the need for nonprofits. Under the inspiring leadership of visionaries like David Cooperrider and a host of others, we are discovering that corporations can be agents of social good in the world.

The line between nonprofits and for profit businesses grows thinner as we discover that the most successful business and entrepreneurial organizations are those focused on social good. Social good organizations may emerge from either the for profit or the nonprofit world. Today, the new tax exempt organizations we are helping to start are social good organizations. Many are formed by the leaders of emerging start-up companies. You might say, their organization has a ‘for profit’ and a non-profit face.

The nonprofit of the future will be a social good organization. What does this emergent social good organization look like? The emerging social good organization has a global perspective, because it knows that we are all interdependent. What happens in Africa or the Middle East does affect us here.

The emerging social good organization is quicker on its feet. It is not static. It is less concerned with mission drift and more engaged in scenario planning. It adjusts its mission and focus frequently as it responds to rapidly changing needs. Each step suggests the next. The story of the emerging social good organization is an ever and rapidly evolving narrative.

Relational leadership is the norm in the emerging social good organization. These organizations are deeply grounded in the present. At the same time the emerging social good organizations has the wisdom to anticipate the impact of its decisions on future generations.

Emerging social good organizations ask strengths-based questions instead of seeking to solve problems. After all, the questions we ask shape our future. Instead of problem solving, we focus on life-giving and life-sustaining innovation. The emerging social good organization is more collaborative. It is building partnerships around the world. It welcomes competition and new ideas. It is adept at messaging and effective use of social media.

The emerging social good organization is engaged in the ever-changing dance between dreaming and designing and delivering.

I am honored to work with a new generation of leaders and organizations for social good. We are supporting these emerging organizations that are creating new technologies, finding ways to provide fresh water and food to the world, and both imagining and creating a desired future.

Nadya Zhexembayeva says in her great work, Overfished Ocean Strategy: Powering up Innovation for a Resource-deprived World that “something entirely new is ready to be born.”

We are honored and humbled to be part of the birth process of the emerging social good organizations. The days of the closed fist holding the shaft of wheat are gone. We still hold that harvested wheat in our hand. But it is an open hand, and not a clenched fist.

We don’t have all the answers. In fact, we are novices just beginning to learn how to ask the right questions. But, we are in good company at the cutting edge of imagining a more effective way to do good in the world.

What are your thoughts?  What does the nonprofit of the future look like to you?  Won’t you join the conversation?


 Dr. Samuel Mahaffy is a founding Associate of Comprehensive Nonprofit Services, LLC (CNPS, LLC). He is the author of Relational Presence: Decision Making beyond Consensus. He has assisted more than five hundred nonprofits and NGOs in his career as a facilitator and consultant. He is a public speaker and writer on topics including relational presence, relational practices in health care, positive aging, peacemaking, Africa, and the country of his birth–Eritrea.