When I dove into the numbers from The Urban Institute's Nonprofit Almanac 2012 yesterday I made a classic mistake - one I'm usually telling others to avoid. I got lost in the numbers that were presented, and failed to step back and ask "Is what is being counted here what really matters?" "What are we not asking, what do we not know?"
The data that the Almanac presents are important and they raise a number of important questions, including and going beyond those I posted. But they do not represent all the ways we use private resources for public benefit and their meaning and implications will always be limited taken out of this broader context. As commenters on the post reminded me - what about DAFs? There are tens of billions of dollars in donor advised funds - yet they are nowhere in the Almanac.
This is important because DAFs have been with us for decades, and we still don't count them. The questions I raised about political funding - which are attributable to a much more recent phenomenon of explosive "dark money" flowing through organizations chartered as nonprofits - is nowhere to be seen. These flows matter, but you'd never know to think about them from the data presented. This is similarly true with funding from impact investments, and with the many types of social businesses, hybrid enterprises, and "for benefit" corporations putting those funds to work.
In the very first Blueprint (2010) I shared my attempt at showing the different, but related and mutually influential, sources of funding and enterprises that make up a more complete universe of how we use private resources for public benefit. I argued then, and am still arguing today, that we need to consider the funding and the enterprises as part of interconnected space (we've dubbed it the social economy) in order to really understand who's doing what, if revenue is growing or declining, and where the boundaries of different sectors should be drawn. Here's a version of that picture (taken from the Blueprint 2012 and used in just about every speech I've given since 2010)
I've used this graphic so often I hate it. I've spent five years trying to map the changes in this universe - it's high time we all started working to map the fullness of these phenomenon. If Neil deGrasse Tyson can bring back Carl Sagan's Cosmos, surely we can update our understanding of how we use private money for public benefit - and track the data accordingly.
We need data on nonprofits, benefit businesses, and politically active social nonprofits in one place, tracked over time, so we can answer questions such as - "Is there more or less money involved?" "More or fewer enterprises?" "Who does what?" and, most important, "How should we monitor, oversee, provide incentives for, and regulate all of this?"