Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Fourth Sector

The second flight of “Test Pilots” is winging their way through the CFM Digital Badging project. Besides helping the Alliance test the potential of this form of microcredentialing to serve our members, and providing some training on strategic foresight as applied to museums, I had hoped the course might generate some good content to share on this blog. And it has! This week’s post is a “story seed” created by CFM Council member (and test pilot) Angie Kim. This seed is the kernel of what could become a longer, more details story of what I think is a very plausible future.

Date of this scenario: 2025

Trends observable today, and a plausible future event, that could lead to this future:

Trend 1: Government support of social issues continues to decrease.

Trend 2: Private philanthropic support continues to underfund pressing social and humanitarian issues relative to personal-interest giving (such as for arts and culture, medical research, and higher education).

Trend 3: Triple bottom-line private enterprises continues to grow in number and in strength making corporations that operate for the social good both popular and commercially viable

Trend 4: Wealthy, young business entrepreneurs from the technology industries have emerged as leaders in the nonprofit sector, with an interest in applying capitalistic, entrepreneurial strategies to fixing social problems.

Event: All 50 states recognize triple bottom-line, social benefit corporations and yet-to-be-tested litigation uphold directors’ ability to prioritize social and environmental good over earning profits.

Story Seed: The Fourth Sector: 2025


Since the 1950s, the number of nonprofits in the United States has exploded, with well over 1 million 501(c)(3) public charities today. Despite this number, not all nonprofits and their issues are supported equally. The majority of private philanthropic support has gone to private-interest areas, such as elite universities, arts and culture, and medical centers, and not to helping the poor or to solving environmental issues (The Center on Philanthropy & Google, 2007). Exacerbating this problem is the unabated decline in government support for social issues. Consequently, the nonprofit sector is no longer seen as the space for solving social problems, such as poverty, hunger, homelessness and climate change. Instead, for-profit commercial enterprises that are incorporated as multiple bottom-line businesses have emerged as powerful agents of social change.

Although these businesses donate time and money to social causes, their charitable activities have far less impact than their enterprise ability to marry consumer spending with positive changes in such areas as sourcing of sustainable materials and humanitarian improvements in their production chain that protect natural resources and lift workers out of poverty. Commercial enterprises that unleash the power of capitalism on solving social problems has become so effective that new investment classes are being invented that further secure financial resources in this socially responsible marketplace. Unlike the nonprofit system that depended on the voluntary actions and behaviors of donors, the private enterprise market of consumers and investors are able to ‘move the needle’ on social issues like never before.

Here are five discussion questions Angie suggests you use to guide a conversation, in a museum or other organization, about this scenario and how it might inform your planning:
  1. Is the nonprofit sector the best sector for solving social problems? Why or why not?
  2. How should nonprofits respond to the evidence that the sector does not do enough to solve social problems?
  3. How can nonprofits set aside their individual competitive needs in order to strengthen the overall sector’s ability to ‘move the needle’ on certain issues?
  4. Is the emergence of commercial enterprises that operate for social good a positive or negative development for nonprofits? In what ways, and why?
  5. In what ways might nonprofits be so shortsighted in their visions for the future that they miss the opportunity to be the leading sector for social change?

I also recommend this recent post by Angie on her own blog, Private Foundations Plus, that explores related concepts in greater depth.

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