Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Different Kind of Infrastructure

"Economic downturns and other sudden crises tend to have less influence on a number of infrastructure organizations that are better suited to withstand them."

Executive Summary, The Nonprofit Quarterly Study on Nonprofit and Philanthropic Infrastructure, May 2009.

Well, that makes sense. Another oddity is that much of this research only looks in depth at national nonprofit infrastructure yet the most passionate claims are about the concentration of resources at the national level as opposed to local and state nonprofit infrastructure.

This special issue of Nonprofit Quarterly looks sporadically at the impacts of the economic downtown on the nonprofit sector, especially small and medium sized nonprofits, and at aspects of the nonprofit infrastructure that serves the sector.

Overall I found this to be a fairly muddled piece of work that probably should have been introduced rather than concluded by Paul C. Light's essay Four Futures, in which he asks,"During these troubled times,what lies ahead for the nonprofit sector..?...Will we miraculously survive as we largely do today? Will we stress our organizations to the core or emerge from the current calamity mostly intact?"

Instead of addressing these questions, this collection of articles wanders about from expressing peeve at the national nonprofit infrastructure and national funders to several interesting maps of nonprofit infrastructure and to a somewhat arcane discussion of "public goods" and different nonprofit income strategies.

In the end, I was left with basic questions like: How important is nonprofit infrastructure at any level? What are its most effective components. How does a national infrastructure help local and state nonprofits? What are the gaps in local and state infrastructure? And how can this infrastructure be better equipped to help all nonprofits?

Oddly, the collection ends with some sensible but limited conclusions, an unexpected outcome for me given all that had come before: a national network of state infrastructure groups; an investment pool for smaller infrastructure groups; federal funding for elements (i.e. data collection) of national infrastructure; a campaign for more foundation funding of infrastructure; and, of course, a research agenda.

But these recommendations say little about mitigating the impacts of the economic downturn on the nonprofit sector.

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