There is a difference between community nonprofits on one hand, and universities and hospitals on the other, and it isn't just size.
Community nonprofits arise to meet self-identified community needs, and are the vehicles through which we take care of our communities and act for social change. Much more than individual corporations providing units of services, we are vital components of movements ranging from health care access to environmental health, immigration rights, ending racial discrimination and raising our individual and collective spirits.
But community nonprofits take heat from everyone: government tells us we're too small or mismanaged; consultants urge us to make a hundred management improvements; donors tell us there are too many nonprofits; corporations tell us to be more businesslike (like Bear Stearns or Enron?) and foundations tell us that our logic models aren't good enough. It's easy to become discouraged when faced with this onslaught of negativity. But community nonprofits and people – the overwhelming majority of the nonprofit sector – are the ones doing most of the work, coming up with the most innovative ideas and making the most meaningful investments in community life.
I recently met with a some women from a public housing project who were trying to raise a few thousand dollars to start a drill team for middle school girls – the money was for instruments and uniforms. After talking with them, I realized that some people might assume that the YMCA or the Boys and Girls Club would do a better job of starting such a drill team – after all, they have experts in youth development and professional purchasing departments! While these are great organizations, I hope you would all agree with me that there is a unique and greater value in having mothers in a housing project start and lead such a team. They will not only provide "units of service," but in the process will create and nurture a community of parents and youngsters, a community that will realize many more impacts than just "unduplicated clients served."
In addition to our greater impact, community nonprofits are actually more effective and more efficient than nearly all government agencies and corporations. We break new ground (unlike foundations) and take personal risks (unlike funders). As community nonprofits, we not only provide services, we are parts of and we lead movements for social change, and we hold ourselves accountable to our constituencies.
All of our organizations are like the drill team for girls: we not only develop and provide important services, but in doing so we create community and bring about long-term, varied and unexpected benefits. In our own work, we all share the heart, spirit and meaning of the drill team mothers. Let's claim not only our explicit outcomes, but all the impacts we have.