This piece was originally published in the Tallahassee Democrat (October 28, 2017).
Various observers suggest that nonprofits provide two basic functions: one instrumental, the other expressive. The first emphasizes that nonprofits provide services and address problems that neither the market nor government adequately addresses. We are fortunate this weekly column from Kelly Otte and Alyce Lee Stansbury provides advice to nonprofit leaders on better serving these various community needs.
In this guest column, we embrace the other function, namely that nonprofits serve as a venue for people who share particular community values to gather and jointly articulate those values. For us to understand this expressive function, we first need to unpack our taken-for-granted labels for these organizations. Why, for example, do we name these organizations for what they are not – nonprofit or nongovernmental – rather than what they are or what they do?
Some Europeans argue that American preoccupation with the term “nonprofit” draws undue attention to these organizations’ economic roles while deemphasizing their social and political functions, which are at least equally as important. One noted scholar, Roger Lohmann, has offered an alternative for this labeling problem.
He suggests that societies possess an arena for collective action that he refers to as a “commons.” In contrast to the state and the market, the commons “is characterized by uncoerced participation, shared purposes and resources, mutuality, and fairness.”
Our society often falls short of this idealized notion of the commons, but these activities still offer a set of checks and balances against distortions in either the state or market sectors. This role is particularly critical now.
The nightly news provides a steady flow of stories from governments and individual leaders in Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, North Korea, the Philippines, and South America that strain our hope for universal democracy, rule of law, and just outcomes for marginalized people around the world. Many observers note that in the United States public discourse has acquired an ugly divisiveness and government action is marked by deadlock.
Likewise, from the private sector come frequent reports of corporate opportunism and leaders who harass and exploit women and other employees. If business and governmental institutions are under such strain, then perhaps the time is right to ask what might be done within civil society to confront these distortions and articulate values that return our communities to a place of shared purposes and resources, mutuality, and fairness.
Another scholar, Jon Van Til, has identified three types of activity that people and organizations in this “third space” undertake to achieve these goals: helping those who need help, democratic engagement and advocacy, and people coming together to create solidarity. According to Van Til, educators have a responsibility to provide opportunities for students to undertake these activities.
Dr. Van Til, Professor Emeritus in sociology at Rutgers University, is visiting Florida State University as this year’s Cresse Lecturer. The Cresse Lecture series was created by former Governor Reubin Askew and named for his long-time advisor, Joe Cresse.
On Friday, Nov. 3, FSU’s Reubin O’D. Askew School of Public Administration & Policy will host three Cresse Lecture events. The first event is a morning panel involving Van Til and four university and community representatives, including Kelly Otte and David Berlan. Van Til will engage in a short discussion and field questions at a luncheon at Kool Beanz Café, sponsored by the local chapter of the American Society for Public Administration. The main event is a keynote address by Van Til at 3 p.m. in the rotunda of the FSU College of Law.
We particularly recommend the keynote address because Van Til’s remarks will be more extensive, and there is greater opportunity to ask questions.
Please email either author for additional details about the Cresse Lecture events.
Ralph S. Brower (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Center for Civic and Nonprofit Leadership.
David Berlan (email@example.com) is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at FSU.
Their comments in this column represent their own views and not necessarily those of the institution that employs them. Notes on Nonprofits is a collaborative column by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE and Kelly Otte, MPA. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.