Technology’s power to rapidly mobilize swarms of individuals for social causes—bypassing traditional institutions like religious organizations and established charities—poses significant new problems for the nonprofit world, said Diana Aviv, chief executive of Independent Sector.
"When their particular interest has been fulfilled or their passion has diminished, whichever one comes first, they disband and there is no social capital that’s built," Ms. Aviv said.
It is one of a number of major challenges facing nonprofits, gleaned from more than a year of Independent Sector-led research, detailed by Ms. Aviv in Washington on Friday. The research is a 15-year view into the future, Ms. Aviv said, with changes coming so fast that nonprofits ignore them at their peril.
Independent Sector is hitting the road to share the findings and solicit additional input from its members and others at a series of meetings across the country in the coming months. The first is scheduled for March 24 in New York City.
"We will also ask them, What are the bright spots?" Ms Aviv said. "What are the examples of successful collaborations and successful outcomes that they have seen in their local communities? We believe that some of the answers do lie out there already."
Thereafter, the degree to which Independent Sector takes a leadership role on any issue will depend on its capacity, she said.
Among the new realities facing nonprofits is a shift in business in which corporations are tilting toward "people and planet" as part of their profit motive, she said. They see that millennials are attracted, both as employees and consumers, to companies and brands that integrate social good into their operations and products.
This, along with relatively new phenomena like B corporations and individual-led, technology-fueled social movements are making social good "far more diffuse and unspecific," Ms. Aviv said.
Technology has also created a tectonic shift in several ways. In the past, paying to join an association meant access to information, networks of interests, and events. Now, because of technology and easy access to endless streams of information, people don’t need those umbrella organizations, she said.
"You find the very large associations competing with boutique operations that specialize in particular kinds of services."
The way some groups have attempted to respond to a decline in membership is by doing more of the same, Ms. Aviv said.
"It felt a little bit like the time when Henry Ford was rolling out his automobiles, and we had a whole group of people who were trying to improve the horse and buggy," she said.
The research included questions about the future utility of Independent Sector, Ms. Aviv said, adding that if evidence had suggested there was no longer a role for it to play, "we were willing to go away."
With 520 member organizations, many of them large federated charities with tens of thousands of affiliates across the country, Independent Sector is one of the most influential groups in the nonprofit world.
The staff had 250 meetings with Congressional offices in 2014, Ms. Aviv said, and 100 percent of the groups participating in the research asked that Independent Sector continue its public-policy work.