News and analysis
September 30, 2015

Nonprofits Must Adapt or End Up in 'Ash Heap,' Diana Aviv Says

Luke Sharrett/The New York Times/Redux
As Diana Aviv prepares to leave Independent Sector after 12 years as its leader, she calls on nonprofits to collaborate with each other — and with businesses and other parts of society — to survive the challenges they face.

Nonprofits are poised to "add immense value to our society" but only if they adapt to demographic and technological shifts sweeping the United States, says Diana Aviv, the outgoing chief executive of Independent Sector.

One of the most visible leaders in the nonprofit world, Ms. Aviv announced in June she was leaving the organization after 12 years to take the top job at Feeding America.

During an interview with The Chronicle the day before she departs the coalition of foundations and nonprofits on Wednesday, she said more federal oversight is needed to prevent charity scandals, and she bemoaned the lack of progress on diversity in the nonprofit work force. She also called for more collaboration among nonprofits and with other parts of society, especially business, and warned that only the fittest nonprofits would survive the pressures facing them. 

"Those organizations that lean in and change are the ones that will make it and succeed, and those that don’t will find themselves on the ash heap of history," she said. "We have no choice but to jump on those winds of change."

Preparing for the Future

Ms. Aviv has spent the last six months of her leadership trying to find out where those winds of change will blow. In what turned out to be her farewell tour, she traveled the country and listened to nonprofit leaders’ concerns and ideas during regional conversations Independent Sector held as part of its effort, called Threads, to prepare charities for the future.

Independent Sector won’t release the results of its Threads research until its annual conference in October, but Ms. Aviv said that the process revealed among nonprofits "a sense of hunger for a long-term view" and a recognition that if they want to change the world, "they can’t do this work alone."

Charities need to collaborate rather than compete and work more effectively with government and businesses, Ms. Aviv said.

Neil Nicoll, chairman of Independent Sector’s board and former president of the Y, said he hoped the organization would be the home for those collaborations. For that to happen, Ms. Aviv said, Independent Sector must figure out how to help diverse organizations find common ground while also providing the particular services each demands.

"It’s going to be piloting different approaches next year," she said. "If the pilots succeed, they will have the unbeatable combination of customization and universal engagement, which will be the most important victory to achieve."

One of the trends Threads identified is the growing ability of people to mobilize behind causes without organizations serving as middlemen. Ms. Aviv said nonprofits should learn from businesses how to use technology to appeal to potential supporters with techniques such as targeted online advertising.

"If they don’t figure out the way to harness the energy of the swarms of people that come together to address something that matters to them personally, it will be to the detriment of the organizations, not the other way around," she said. "Therefore, it’s incumbent upon the organization to lean into those groups and figure out a way to capture them."

Fraud Worries

Ms. Aviv leaves behind some unfinished business.

She’s frustrated with what she calls elected officials’ "deep ambivalence about incentivizing giving," as demonstrated by Independent Sector’s struggle to permanently extend a provision that allows older people to donate money from their individual retirement accounts without facing financial penalties. She wishes every White House viewed the nonprofit sector as "a powerful force for change to improve the world, the way that business is seen as adding value to the economy."

And she warned that decreased federal oversight of nonprofits has allowed con artists and others to abuse charities. With some legislators skeptical of the Internal Revenue Service — unfairly, in Ms. Aviv’s opinion — the task of uncovering nonprofit wrongdoing has fallen to reporters. Although Ms. Aviv welcomes media attention, she called it insufficient.

"The resources that are available to our oversight officials, particularly at the federal level, to monitor the sector are so paltry, that if bad actors come into the sector with the intention of abusing the system, a lot of them are going to get away with it," she said. "If there aren’t government officials engaging in oversight activities, the result will be the public will begin to think this is the tip of the iceberg and it’s the way all organizations operate and that we are just catching the ones that come to the attention of the media."

If nonprofit leaders don’t take the time to educate themselves about laws and best practices, and if foundations don’t support that education, "it will take three or four really bad stories and we’ll be back in the mud again as we were before," Ms. Aviv said.

She also criticized nonprofits' "very poor showing with regard to inclusion and diversity," especially since people of color are projected to make up the majority of the country’s population within the next few decades. What’s more, she said she was dismayed that charities and foundations had failed to adequately address the growing divide between rich and poor people, a trend she called "quite discouraging and quite alarming."

Surprise Offer

Her desire to help poor people motivated Ms. Aviv to accept Feeding America’s job offer. The opportunity was a surprise, she said, and it forced her to make a difficult choice between her two passions: strengthening civil society and directly helping those who need it most. After devoting more than a decade doing the former at Independent Sector, she decided to switch gears. Mr. Nicoll confirmed that it was Ms. Aviv’s decision to leave the organization and said it came as a surprise to the board.

Departing Independent Sector a month before it releases its Threads report is less than ideal, Ms. Aviv said. Still, she hopes the timing will give the organization’s next leader the opportunity to carry out necessary changes according to his or her own ideas.

Mr. Nicoll agreed. "It will allow them to put their fingerprints on Independent Sector," he said.

The strategic plan Independent Sector’s board approved in April did not take Ms. Aviv’s departure into account, but Mr. Nicoll said it was flexible enough to accommodate a change in leadership.

He praised Ms. Aviv’s service and said he’s anxious to find her replacement: "We hope to have a new leader identified as soon as possible because we are aware that Independent Sector has a number of things on its plate that we don’t want to sit."

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.