Participation or professionalization? A call to support democratic practices in nonprofits


Jennifer Dodge, University at Albany—SUNY and NVSQ Author

The pressure for nonprofits to professionalize is enormous. I often think about this in the context of policy advocacy (advocating for particular policy positions using a variety of political strategies and tactics such as research, litigation, coalition building etc.), where the necessity to respond to changing political dynamics places “efficiency” at the top of the list of priorities. Developing a professional staff and relying on it to respond to the whims of a new administration, a change in political climate, or a new opportunity makes a lot of sense. The pressure to professionalize derives from these features of our political culture. It also derives from, or at least is reflected in, recent efforts to formalize nonprofit accountability structures, which require nonprofits to develop specific principles and statements to ensure accountability to the public, such as statements for handling conflicts of interest (this is the case in New York Nonprofit Revitalization Act of 2013, for instance). As with achieving greater efficiency, some form of formalization can make a lot of sense, especially when we are primed to think about high profile scandals where the nonprofit form is abused for personal gain.

However, this professionalization and formalization can also miss the point; at its best it has the potential to overlook, and at worst crush, the work of a particular type of nonprofit
that engages societal groups who have been marginalized or face inequalities in education, income, or any number of challenges. In a recent article I wrote for NVSQ, I explored, with my co-author Sonia Ospina, the practices that two nonprofits implement to school citizens in democracy, to shape environmental policy to be more just. Far from being a natural consequence of nonprofit work, schooling citizens in these organizations required considerable and concerted effort. It is a choice. Some might argue that it represents an inefficient use of nonprofit resources. I would argue instead that it reflects a different form of efficiency that I call “doing double duty.” This form of efficiency has to do with making sure that any investment in resources is going to have a dual effect: in this case: making policy change and training a cadre of citizens to engage in the political process. In the long run, this is more efficient than relying on a narrow set of experts or professional staff who are far removed from the experience of marginalization that drives the need for policy change in the first place.

In this article, we document two sets of practices these organizations implement to school citizens in democracy to create more just policy and to help members become active citizens rather than mere clients or customers of the organization. “Framing practices” offer citizens new ways of seeing old problems that highlight the injustices of their present circumstances, thus generating the will to action. One framing practice – which we learned a great deal about from the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice – views some environmental problems as “environmental injustices” or “environmental racism.” When these terms are invoked they direct attention toward the distribution of environmental hazards and environmental benefits, and raise issues related to the justice or injustice of that distribution. They also give attention to who is making environmental decisions, and whether or not affected communities are invited to participate in meaningful ways.

Complementing these framing practices are what we have called, “relational practices.” In social change nonprofits, these practices support member-driven accountability – accountability to organizational members who have experienced marginalization in different forms – by shaping how organizational members and staff relate to each other on a daily basis. These roles are often included in the organization’s written principles and bylaws.
For instance, many social change nonprofits explicitly define the ways staff and technical experts support members’ actions and agenda setting rather than define them for members. They also create “space for voice,” which means ensuring that formal structures and informal interactions prioritize members’ expression of their beliefs, values and goals, and that these become the building blocks for setting organizational direction. These practices shift power within the organization so members take the lead. They are focused on creating spaces for citizens to exercise ways of being and doing in their communities that links their participation in the organization directly with their
participation in the broader political context.

Implementing these practices comes will all kinds of challenges: How do you engage members who may not have the time or inclination to get involved? How do you ensure that representation within the organization is broad and balanced? In addition, some organizational staff may espouse views consistent with these practices, but fail to follow through in their actions. But when organizations do this well, they can create significant impact. The point I want to make is that there is a particular and special logic to these organizations that carries with it a different kind of accountability; it operates to support member development and engagement in the political process. While some features of professionalization are desirable in some quarters, they may not be so in grassroots nonprofits. The trend toward professionalization should not come at the expense of our understanding and support of the kinds of framing and relational practices that are vital to an engaged nonprofit sector, and ultimately an engaged citizenry.

Featured article: Dodge, J & Ospina, S.M. (2016). Nonprofits as “Schools of Democracy”: A Comparative Case Study of Two Environmental Organisations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45 (3), 478-499.

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