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When you think of the most rapidly growing segments of the economy, what comes to mind? Cybersecurity? Data science? Software development?

No. To my astonishment, nonprofits are the fastest growing sector. Not just nonprofit hospitals or nonprofit colleges and universities, but 501(c)3s—organizations that are supposed to provide a public benefit, including foundations, charities and social service organizations such as housing providers and shelters, social justice advocacy groups, and youth development organizations.

Today, the United States has 1.5 million nonprofit organizations employing about 10 percent of the workforce.

By some measures, nonprofits are now the country’s third largest employer, behind only retail sales and manufacturing and ahead of finance, professional services, transportation and warehousing, and the federal and local governments. Among the largest: the Nature Conservancy, behind only Goodwill Industries and Catholic Charities.

The nonprofit sector includes cultural, environmental, hunger and antipoverty, disaster and international aid, public media, rights, and wildlife and animal welfare organizations. Contrary to what many observers assume, much of the funding for the nonprofit sector comes not from donors or endowments, but government. According to one estimate, 80 percent of nonprofit revenue comes from government grants.

One reason nonprofits have grown faster than any other sector: because these organizations fill essential gaps in this country’s porous social safety net. To keep government small, politicians outsource many governmental functions to nonprofits and, in the process, undercut government’s internal capacity.

I mention this because many of our graduates, especially in the humanities and the “soft” social sciences, will enter this sector of the economy. Even within higher education, the fastest-growing area of employment lies among nonteaching professionals of various sorts, including in advising, instructional technology, math, science and teaching and writing centers.

We need to do much more to prepare them for such jobs.

Robinson Meyer, a journalist who covers climate change, energy policy and environmental politics, has written an important article on nonprofit governance that is well worth your attention. Written in response to the hullabaloo that erupted after the Board of Directors at OpenAI fired its chief executive, Sam Altman, the piece examines the unique ways that many of today’s nonprofit organizations function.

In contrast to the membership or chapter-driven structure of labor unions, many of today’s nonprofits are run by boards of directors that are not accountable to their membership or chapter. Many of these boards are self-perpetuating; board members appoint their own successors. Stakeholders cannot vote out a board or elect new directors. In Meyer’s biting words, “Insulated from market pressure and public oversight, board-only nonprofits are free to wander off into wackadoodle land.”

As Theda Skocpol, the Harvard sociologist and political scientist who is, in my opinion, the single most knowledgeable commentator on how the American polity functions, has observed, the nature of American civic life underwent a sea change during the last third of the 20th century. Membership organizations, like the AFL-CIO, the Shriners, Elks and Lions, the Rotary and Kiwanis, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the National Rifle Association, the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters, or the National Congress of PTAs, gave way to issue-focused, professionally dominated advocacy groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League, the National Right to Life Committee and mission-driven, board controlled nonprofits (like OpenAI).

As Skocpol explains, “Classic American association-builders took it for granted that the best way to gain national influence, moral or political, was to knit together national, state and local groups that met regularly and engaged in a degree of representative governance … Supporters had to be continuously recruited through social networks and person-to-person contacts … Classic civic entrepreneurs with national ambitions moved quickly to recruit activists and members in every state and across as many towns and cities as possible within each state.”

Today, in contrast, civic entrepreneurs turn to private foundations for funding, purchase mailing lists to solicit monetary contributions and manage their organizations from the center, without membership meetings, policy discussions with members or membership election of directors.

As Meyer notes bluntly, many of the most influential nonprofits, like the AARP or the Children’s Defense Fund or Public Citizen or Common Cause or the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, Earth Justice and the Center for Biological Diversity, “claim to have members but are not in fact governed by them.”

“Instead of articulating the views of a deep, national membership network, these groups essentially speak for a centralized and professionalized leadership corps—invariably located in a major city—who are armed with modern marketing techniques. And instead of fundraising through dues, fees or tithes, these new groups depend on direct-mail operations, massive ad campaigns and foundation grants.”

These organizations’ governance structures “[place] an enormous amount of faith in the leaders of these nonprofits and foundations and in the social strata that they occupy.” Many nonprofits operate without much oversight or accountability.

What can our institutions do to better prepare graduates for work in nonprofit organizations? The answer lies in reimagining degree pathways and creating more opportunities for skill building, practical experience and networking.

One way to start is to offer courses that focus on nonprofit management and leadership, covering topics like fundraising, grant writing, nonprofit finance, governance, program evaluation and volunteer management.

Many students, but especially those in the humanities, would benefit enormously from knowing more about the history, size, scope and role of nonprofits; the various forms these organizations can take; and their diverse missions and functions. Interested students would also profit from learning about nonprofits’ legal status, including tax-exemption criteria, regulatory requirements and governance structures.

Then there are more practical issues. Students interested in careers in the nonprofit sector need to learn about:

  • How nonprofits develop and communicate their mission, vision and values and how these guide their operations and strategies.
  • The strategic planning process, including goal setting, strategic decision-making and scenario planning.
  • Nonprofits’ financial and fundraising strategies, including grant writing, government grants, individual giving, major gifts, corporate sponsorship and online fundraising, as well as researching funders, proposal development, budget preparation and donor relations.
  • Financial management, including budgeting, financial reporting and the nonprofit accounting.
  • Sustaining productive organizational cultures and managing human resources effectively—including recruiting, training, managing and retaining volunteers, who are often vital to nonprofit operations.
  • Program management and evaluation, including setting objectives, measuring outcomes, judging impact assessment and using evaluation data for improvement and accountability.
  • Strategies for marketing and communications, including branding, public relations, social media and community outreach.
  • Advocacy, including community organizing and political lobbying.

Coursework in ethics is also essential. Given their commitment to the public good, it is especially important for nonprofits to act transparently, accountably and ethically. As the recent controversies surrounding Ibram Kendi’s antiracism center at Boston University make clear, issues of governance, staffing and fund management and accounting—including staff diversity and compensation, how money is spent, and how financial information is reported—are critical ethical issues, since mismanagement of funds and operation can seriously erode public trust.

Ethical fundraising practices are also crucial. Key ethical issues include expenditures on administration as opposed to services, self-dealing and potential conflicts of interest; ethical methods for soliciting donations; and honesty and accuracy of information provided to donors.

International NGOs that serve populations outside the United States face a unique set of ethical challenges. These include cultural sensitivity and respect for local traditions, impartiality in conflict zones, partnering and empowering local communities, ensuring accountability and sustaining credibility and trust, and navigating fraught issues involving partisanship, paternalism, beneficiary consent and corruption and bribery.

Next, encourage interdisciplinary studies that are relevant to students’ interests. Depending on students’ career goals, this might include coursework in business administration, environmental studies, health management, international relations or social work.

Also, expand opportunities for students to acquire practical experience. Give students interested in nonprofit careers opportunities to undertake research projects that address the real-world challenges faced by nonprofit organizations and to apply theoretical knowledge to practical scenarios. In addition, facilitate internships, co-op programs and service-learning opportunities with nonprofit organizations. Real-world experience can help students develop the communication, project-management, leadership, fundraising, advocacy and data-analysis skills that are critical in the nonprofit sector.

I’d also recommend giving students chances to interact with experienced practitioners, including alumni, who can provide students with insights into the nonprofit world, help students network and find mentors who can provide career advice, and help them identify potential job opportunities.

The four-part 1996 BBC series The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders—far truer to Daniel Defoe’s 1722 tale than the 1999 Robin Wright–Morgan Freeman film—concludes with some memorable words. Moll—“Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, [who] at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and dies a Penitent”—says this: each of us wants to do good and do well. “May you never have to choose.” 

I, for one, believe that it’s a mistake to set students’ academic interests and career aspirations in opposition. Many humanities majors aspire to enter the nonprofit world of the arts, education, museums or social justice, social services, social welfare or social activism. Let’s give them the foundational skills and training they need.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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