Published in the Spring 2011 issue of SSA Magazine

From social enterprise to social media, a wave of innovations is transforming how nonprofits operate

Imagine you're the leader of a successful nonprofit whose mission is to provide intensive life and career training to desperately poor individuals. A nonprofit housing developer with a background in rejuvenating foreclosed properties approaches you with an idea for a joint venture: A for-profit property management service for the empty houses. The new company would diversify your revenue and increase your clients' job training options. But does it fit your mission?

That's the key question Eric Weinheimer, CEO of The Cara Program, asked participating University of Chicago students in the final session of a workshop series that explores recent sea changes in the nonprofit world. Weinheimer led the students through a case study based on Cara's real experience deciding whether to take on this social enterprise venture. In the end, Cara pursued it, "and it has been wildly successful," Weinheimer said.

The Nonprofits and Social Innovation Workshop was created last year for second-year master's students who are interested in careers within the nonprofit sector. The ninesession non-credit workshop used guest speakers such as Weinheimer to help explore what makes for an effective, innovative and entrepreneurial nonprofit organization—a topic that is rapidly changing in today's world.

"The urban nonprofit sector is really different now than it was even five or 10 years ago," points out SSA Associate Professor Scott W. Allard, who facilitated the series, which was hosted by the School. "The goal of the training is to get students thinking about new models of operation, new methods of generating revenue, and new ways to develop opportunities for the people they serve."

SSA's graduates will be entering the nonprofit field at a time of generational change. The retirement of the Baby Boomers, plus increasing growth and complexity of the organizations themselves, means that there is a growing need for managerial, organizational and leadership skills. Nearly 80,000 nonprofit leadership positions will open annually starting in 2016, according to the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consulting firm. In a survey of human services organizations, Bridgespan found many lacked the resources to find and cultivate new leadership within their organizations.

These changes are happening in concert with a diverse set of new opportunities and challenges that are fundamentally changing many nonprofits. For example, with budget cuts that have only accelerated since this economic downturn, foundation, government and charitable dollars have grown scarcer. In 2009, a Donors Forum of Chicago survey found that more than one-third of the grantmakers surveyed planned further decreases in giving and about 70 percent of the nonprofits had decreased their budgets that year.

Under this pressure, many nonprofits are learning how to quantify results, diversify income and market themselves creatively. Social enterprises— market-based entities with a social change mission, such as Weinheimer's case study—are one example.

Other sessions of the program looked at how an organization can use marketing and communications. Here too, with social media like Twitter and Facebook, the pace of change keeps accelerating. "I hadn't realized how important it was to distinguish yourself from all the other nonprofits doing similar work," said SSA second-year masters student Beth Horwitz at a workshop.

In addition to the workshops, SSA students also have the opportunity to attend seminars from visiting professors and take a variety of courses such as "The Third Sector in Society: An International Perspective," taught by Benjamin Gidron, a visiting professor from Ben Gurion University in Israel, or "Nonprofit Organizations and Advocacy for Social Change" taught by SSA Assistant Professor Jennifer Mosley. "I think it's important that future managers understand how to balance the everyday demands of running a nonprofit social service agency with the larger imperative of being an effective agent of social change," she says.

After two years of offering the workshop series to Chicago students, the next step is to develop a nondegree program targeted to rising nonprofit leaders already established in local agencies. Since last summer, SSA has been in contact with more than 100 organizations and individuals whose support for the idea was "almost unanimous," says Spruiell Weber White, a visiting scholar at SSA and a former program officer at the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation.

For Allard, both the workshops and the non-degree program are ultimately about building better ways to serve distressed individuals and communities. "By helping tomorrow's nonprofit leaders learn the state-of-the- art in leadership, we're helping organizations build effective and sustainable programs," he says. "There's a lot going on right now, and it's only going to be more important that social service nonprofits are ready to meet the challenge."

— Maureen Kelleher 

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