Greenlights for Nonprofit Success, Austin’s nonprofit management assistance organization, today released the findings of a research study on the number of nonprofits in Central Texas. The results weren’t surprising: we have more nonprofits (over 6,300) per capita than any other large Texas city and any other city in the Southwest region. And our nonprofits tend to be small: 93% (compared to 89% nationally) have a budget under $1 million, and 89% have a budget under $500,000. In light of this study, Greenlights offers some good advice about looking towards cooperation, collaboration, and even mergers given the number of nonprofits that exist and the increasing competition for funding, especially given the current economy.
What is missing from the study, however, is an analysis of the overall social sector in Austin, including philanthropy and other funding mechanisms, other social impact organizations–like social enterprises (creating social impact through market-based activity)– and the role of the public sector in all of this. We need to take a bigger picture view and understand all of the elements and entities at play in the sector and how these elements could be better supported, analyzed, strengthened and winnowed, if necessary. We need to take a look, as I explained in an earlier post, at the overall ecosystem for social innovation (ideas that solve existing public challenges). And we need to look at similar cities (like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Pittsburgh) to understand how their social sector is innovating and thriving and what we could learn from them. The ecosystem for a thriving social innovation sector includes:
- An Engaged Public Sector: A city and/or state-level office for social innovation, similar to the White House Office of Social Innovation that puts public sector focus and resources toward strengthening an innovative social sector. One-Star Foundation is moving in this direction.
- Larger, Innovative Philanthropy: An increased number of area philanthropists, giving more grants for capacity-building, providing growth capital to scale great ideas, giving seed funding for ideas that have potential, using mission-related investing and program-related investments, working as a group to discuss innovations in philanthropy and share and leverage projects.
- Social Investment: Adding a social element to the entrepreneurial investing that is already rich in our area, investors could create innovative funds that provide nonprofits and social enterprises financial tools such as loan guarantees, quasi-equity deals, and networks, advice, and entrepreneurial knowledge.
- Colleges and Universities Encouraging Research: Our local colleges and universities could launch centers for research on social entrepreneurship and social innovation. The RGK Center is a good start, but I’d love to see more.
- Discussions and Experiments: More events, gatherings, workshops, think tanks and other activities that help social entrepreneurship and innovation take hold in our region.
I think to truly understand where the Austin social sector is and how the number and capacity of nonprofits fit into that, we need to understand the entire ecosystem. If we want to boast a thriving, innovative social sector we need to take a step back, analyze what we have and what we can do to encourage even more innovation. The end result is a stronger, healthier city that ties its spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation to its desire to give back and strengthen the communities in which we live. That is the Austin I envision.