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Study Reveals What Makes Nonprofits Special

Despite their diversity, U.S. nonprofits are in basic agreement that seven core values—being productive, effective, enriching, empowering, responsive, reliable, and caring—set the nonprofit sector apart from government and for-profit businesses, according to a new report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies' Listening Post Project.

Nonprofit leaders believe that stakeholders in government, the media, and the general public do not understand these values of the nonprofit sector—a situation that needs to be remedied to ensure the survival of the nonprofit sector in light of ongoing challenges.

This is a crucial time for nonprofits around the country. As the federal government moves to avoid the fiscal cliff, proposals to reduce or cap the federal tax deduction for charitable contributions have become an increasingly common feature of budget-balancing measures from both ends of the political spectrum. And on the state and local levels, governments are imposing new taxes and fees on nonprofits in order to make ends meet. Meanwhile, shifts in government payment methods that advantage for-profit businesses have resulted in a reduction of nonprofit market share in many traditional nonprofit fields. Over the past decade, the nonprofit share of private employment has decreased by nearly 8 percent in social assistance, by 4 percent in education, and by 2 percent in health care as for-profit employment in those fields has expanded.

These ongoing challenges are not happening in a vacuum. Increasingly, the realities of nonprofit operations have diverged from the popular understanding of what a nonprofit is and how it operates. As Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies director Lester Salamon states: "In recent years, nonprofits have responded to the fiscal pressures they are under by becoming more commercial in their operations. But this has pulled them away from their traditional values and put their public support at risk. Now is therefore the time for nonprofits to renew their value commitments and to develop the tools needed to communicate those values to the sector’s stakeholders in government, the public, and within the sector itself."

In order to start that process, the Johns Hopkins Listening Post Project conducted a first-ever survey to gauge the thinking within the nonprofit community around the sector's values. Over 750 nonprofits of various sizes operating in the three core nonprofit fields of human services, community development, and the arts responded to a survey asking them to rate how important a set of key values were to the operation of their organizations. The survey revealed widespread consensus around the sector’s key values, important evidence that nonprofit organizations are embodying these values in their work, but also serious concerns about how effectively these values are being conveyed to important sector stakeholders.

By offering nonprofits a common set of words and concepts to frame the discussion of their public benefit, this research promises to help nonprofits better understand their own special value and to articulate it to key stakeholders.

"These values reinforce the fact that the not-for-profit sector is an essential component of American society because it brings out the best in all of us," said Larry Minnix, President and CEO of LeadingAge and chairman of the Listening Post Project Steering Committee. "It is time for a not-for-profit spirit of renewal in our country where the sector reclaims its strengths, recommits to its unique responsibilities for the public good, and society recognizes the sector's enduring contributions in improving the quality of our lives. This Listening Post Project report on these values summarizes in new and fresh ways why and how the sector's mission is so important."

The full text of the report "What do Nonprofits Stand For? Renewing the nonprofit value commitment," is available on the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies website at

The Listening Post Project is a collaborative undertaking of the Center for Civil Society Studies at the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies, the Alliance for Children and Families, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, the American Alliance of Museums, the Arc, Community Action Partnership, LeadingAge, the League of American Orchestras, Lutheran Services in America, Michigan Nonprofit Association, the National Council of Nonprofits, and United Neighborhood Centers of America. Its goal is to monitor the health of the nation's nonprofit organizations and assess how nonprofits are responding to important economic and policy changes. For full details on the respondents to the present survey, see Support for the Listening Post Project has been provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Surdna Foundation.

Natalie Wood-Wright | Newswise
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