Q&A with Mott Program Officer Nick Deychakiwsky

Since 2000, Nick Deychakiwsky has been a program officer for and a member of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s Civil Society team, originally serving in Mott’s Prague office, moving to the Foundation’s home office in Flint, Mich., in 2003. While he is not the program officer for the National Council of Nonprofits’ grants, he is a member of the National Council’s Board of Directors and co-manages Mott’s grant portfolio in the United States related to the nonprofit sector. In this Q&A, Deychakiwsky discusses the nonprofit sector overall and why Mott funds it.

Mott: Mott’s grant to the National Council of Nonprofits is funded through the Foundation’s Civil Society program. Discuss how the nonprofit sector differs in the U.S. from the sector globally.

Nick Deychakiwsky Nick Deychakiwsky (ND): The nonprofit sector is not the same as civil society, but certainly it is a really big component of it. Globally, and in the U.S., the nonprofit sectors are pretty much the same in a structural way. Sometimes it might be called something different. In the U.S., we tend to say “nonprofits” all the time, which is really a legal way of looking at it. In other countries, you will hear “NGOs” or “non-governmental organizations,” or often you will hear the term “CSOs,” which is civil society organizations, and in some countries they will just call them “charities” or “voluntary organizations.” In the U.K. [United Kingdom], they say “the voluntary sector.” The nomenclature might be different, but it is basically the same thing.

In the U.S., the nonprofit sector tends to be bigger than in most other countries because we have more institutions that are included as non-governmental institutions. In the U.S., the biggest ones are universities and hospitals, which in most other countries tend to be governmental or government-run institutions.

Mott: The Foundation’s new Civil Society program plan for the U.S. states, it “focuses on ensuring the nonprofit sector’s vibrancy and responsiveness to social needs through maintaining a robust infrastructure.” What does the Foundation mean when it says “infrastructure” and why does Mott fund infrastructure organizations?

ND: “Infrastructure” is a tricky word. You might think instead in terms of “intermediary organizations.” That is, organizations that support individual nonprofits in enhancing their effectiveness, providing information that all nonprofits need, and helping maintain a favorable policy environment — a legal and regulatory framework that allows nonprofits to do their good work.

These organizations tend not to be the ones that are directly serving communities or advocating for particular causes or dealing with very specific populations, such as environmental groups or youth. The National Council of Nonprofits and Michigan Nonprofit Association are two examples of these. If they were business organizations, they would be called trade associations. Infrastructure organizations can deliver technical assistance or offer education and training for nonprofits, or they might be research organizations that provide information about the entire sector. We believe a strong infrastructure helps individual nonprofits work more responsibly.

Mott: Leaders of nonprofit organizations in the U.S. are increasingly discussing the need for partnerships, especially in the country’s current economic condition. What benefits can come from partnerships with governments and/or businesses — and what are some of the challenges associated with them?

ND: There are limitations to the three-sector model — that is, the business sector, the government sector, and the nonprofit sector. Partnerships are typically a good thing, but sometimes we get caught up in our own sectors and forget it is about people. Look at the local community level; we don’t have people walking around saying, “I am government” or “I am business” or “I am a nonprofit.” Hopefully, we have people just saying, “I live in Flint.” While they play certain roles because of where they are employed, we all care about our communities and, more broadly, about its causes.

Nevertheless, there is some use to the three-sector framework in order to understand partnerships. There are different power dynamics: government still is the most powerful and has the most money. Government can also bring the force of the law. Business also has huge financial resources compared to the nonprofit sector. They can outgun the nonprofit sector financially, so when we have partnerships, that power dynamic could be there. Government often has a bureaucratic approach that is rooted in its accountability to voters, which it has to have. Sometimes that can influence the flexibility/versatility of the nonprofit organizations with whom they are partnering.

There’s another thing. We don’t have too much of it here in the U.S., but I have seen it in countries like Russia where I worked before. It is when partnership with government means the government is going to control it and call the shots. Something that might be benign for the benefit of everybody can quickly turn into something political when government uses it for that purpose. With business, the partnerships can be challenging because a business’ main purpose is making profits; that’s the bottom line. Nonprofits might unwittingly become a tool of some company’s good marketing.

Mott: What are a few of your current concerns regarding the nonprofit sector and your hopes for its future?

ND: Related to the previous topic is this blurring of the lines between the sectors. We are getting more for-profit companies going into areas that were traditionally nonprofit and we’re also seeing nonprofits creating for-profit arms because they have to earn revenues. They also are behaving in a more businesslike way. There is nothing wrong with being businesslike, but sometimes it can lead to a very technocratic approach, a very managerial style of doing things, which sometimes means losing the soul of the mission.

I sometimes wonder, Are nonprofits becoming too transactional, just delivering services for a particular fee?

We need to nurture the kinds of processes where things are win/win and mutually beneficial for all concerned. These can be strong and productive partnerships. While the nonprofit sector is the least resourced sector financially, it is as resourced as the other two, if not better, in its commitment and its people power. In many ways, the caring and compassion of people working in the nonprofit sector bring hope to our society. They are best situated for exhibiting compassion and care that reaches out and helps build communities. Nonprofits give us a way to work together so each person is not doing it alone. They promote the common good. My hope for the future lies in people trying to do good together with others in common cause.

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