There are many forces that keep cities vibrant and livable. There are two forces that are clearly visible and acknowledged – government and commerce – for the good that they generate and provide. But there is another force that is not so readily acknowledged, and yet, plays a key role in ensuring that a city not only functions but is a strong community of service, health, education, and culture.
It is the nonprofit sector that supports this latter work. In New York City, nonprofits have had a long history of activity and action. Currently, there are 15,000 nonprofits in Metro New York – and over 1,500,000 in the U.S that account for than $1 trillion in revenues annually. The nonprofit sector is now the third largest industry in the country and bigger than construction, banking and telecommunications. Indeed, some of the largest employers in New York City are nonprofits: Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York Presbyterian Hospital, New York University, and yes, Columbia University.
Much is expected of the third sector – especially in urban communities. Not only to simply provide shelter for the night for the homeless, but also to tackle more complex issues such as public education reform, developing green jobs, and rethinking and reforming the juvenile justice system. But why does this matter? Because according to Robin Hood Foundation, New York City has 1.9 million adults and children living in poverty. And fair or unfair, nonprofits have been asked to try and fill the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots.
In addition, the third sector is called on to tackle issues that government cannot address or is not willing to address and usually do it with fewer resources. Even in the age of Obama, this is quite a challenge. Some say it impossible; the challenge is far too steep. Others argue that this country’s nonprofits are dynamic and resilient and can indeed meet the challenge – by being deeply connected to the communities they serve and being nimble enough to provide the services that are truly needed and demonstrate impact.
Some questions for the class to consider:
- Is the third sector a viable answer – a panacea – to many of the problems that hinder urban communities?
- What would real public-private-nonprofit partnerships that can provide various services to the less fortunate look like?
- What tools, tactics, and strategies does a professional working in the nonprofit sector need to succeed?
- Is there enough capital in the nonprofit sector – public, private or philanthropic -- to go around? Where is it going? Why is it going there?
This class explores this energetic sector and its impact on urban communities. While much can be learned and gained from reading and reviewing various books, articles, and websites, the instructor not only believes in bringing the class into the community to see an important project but also to meet and engage with the leaders behind these efforts. This is a class that bridges theory and practice. Both inform each other. We are deeply fortunate that New York City provides such a full array of leaders, organizations and programs that are concerned with tackling and solving issues and problems that confront us as a community.
Doug Bauer was a Columbia Business School faculty member from to 2016.