Can More Self-Interest Help In the Social Cause Economy?

John SchoberCross-Sector Collaboration, Nonprofits

Is the nonprofit sector becoming more selfish?

In the hearts of the people working in the sector…not likely. But in the ways that groups and organizations are advancing their missions, there is growing evidence that more self-interest is good for the sector.

The inspiration for the question originated from a recent article in Nonprofit Quarterly that distinguishes between nonprofits with a “doing for” orientation (herein referred to as Charitable Nonprofits) and those with a “doing with” orientation (herein referred to as Self-Organizing Nonprofits). Charitable Nonprofits are those with a mission focused on doing work for others, for example, homeless shelters, food banks, and schools. Self-Organizing nonprofits are those with missions that are focused on working with others to advance shared interests, for example, associations, lobbying groups, and co-ops. Our claim that the nonprofit sector is becoming more selfish is based on our observation of the increasing adoption by Charitable Nonprofits of practices that seem more at home with the more “selfish” Self-Organizing nonprofits.

The Self-Organizing Model

The defining characteristic of the Self-Organizing model is that the members are the primary beneficiaries, i.e. that the work of the organization in partnership with its members benefits the members, first and foremost. Self-Organizing Nonprofits thus implement policies and practices to ensure that value is derived by its members. These include:

Member-Focused Mission Statements

To attract members that are aligned with the mission of the organization and to keep everyone on track in the execution of the mission, Self-Organizing Nonprofits adopt member-focused mission statements that highlight benefits to members as well as to benefits to third parties that are relevant to members, e.g. the communities or the stakeholders that the members serve.

Formalized membership

Self-Organizing Nonprofits often have membership fees and formal member agreements that make roles and responsibilities clear and that specify member benefits.

Distributed teamwork

To advance the work of the organization, Self-Organizing Nonprofits must establish working groups comprised of members that are associated with a variety of organizations. These working groups work without the formality/hierarchy that is typically used for teams comprised of team members from a single organization.

Distributed learning

Self-Organizing nonprofits often establish learning circles and develop information repositories that maximize the degree to which members are learning from each other and using that knowledge in their work.

Applied at Charitable Organizations

Whether through inspiration from what they see at Self-Organizing Nonprofits or through their own ingenuity, Charitable Nonprofits are increasingly adopting similar practices. We see more “we-oriented” strategies that emphasize benefits to multiple stakeholders, for example in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and in cross-sector partnerships. There is a growing use of formal collaborative models such as Collective Impact and Community Systems Solutions. And communities of practice and affinity groups to support distributed work and learning are increasingly common.  

For Self-Organizing Nonprofits, these practices are effective because there is a clear orientation toward shared interest, i.e. my interest is your interest and vice versa. This orientation has not historically been as common in Charitable Nonprofits, as the interests of the client/beneficiary are primary, with the interests of others (e.g. partners and other stakeholders) as secondary. We see this changing, with more focus in Charitable Nonprofits on the interests of partners and other stakeholders, not at the expense of client interest, but as complements to it. And with this changing perspective, the motivation to adopt these practices only increases. 

We see a few forces at work in motivating these changes:

  • Growing frustration with the status quo and the inability of the old way of doing things to deliver impact in communities.
  • Increasing recognition of the complexity of community challenges and of the possible solutions to those challenges. 
  • More awareness of the interdependencies and shared interests in communities, e.g. between clients and their environments, businesses and nonprofits, cities and suburbs, health and education, inclusion and economic growth.
  • Broader adoption of technology to enable new models for delivering impact, e.g. through more data/knowledge in evaluating challenges and better tools for addressing them.

We think that increasing adoption of these practices by Charitable nonprofits is a positive development for the sector, despite their association with a more selfish (less altruistic) model. When adopted as a complement to more altruistic elements of their strategy, these practices will be helpful in addressing the increasingly complex challenges that communities face.