Who owns nonprofits?

Posted on September 28, 2011 by Pam Truitt

Bob Harrington, Director of Strategic Restructuring at La Piana Consulting, posed this question in a recent blog, causing me to pause and ponder for a nano-second before ‘the public’ sprung out of my consciousness.

I spent about 25 years as an urban planner with the vast majority of my clients ‘public’. I knew the answer.  However, jumping to conclusions, without really listening is an annoying habit I’ve had most of my life.   Fortunately maturity is finally taking hold and I’m learning to listen.   It’s amazing what one learns when the cotton is removed from one’s ears and placed in one’s mouth. So, I finished reading Bob’s blog and learned that I wasn’t too far off from the truth. Nonprofits are public benefit corporations.

Thank you Bob for your timely blog. There is a lot of talk these days about collaboration and ownership ... both are messy and emotional topics. Messy in this case means that collaborative conversations must focus on programs and services, populations served and a financially sustainable business model.  Emotional because those involved with nonprofits do it because they want to ‘make a difference’. Making a difference includes a range of feelings:  passion, social justice, emotion and other sensations that make us all want to do the ‘right thing’. I’ve served on several nonprofit boards and in each case I brought a talent, skill, bias or passion for the mission.

The nonprofit sector has important work to do. The Patterson Foundation (TPF) knows that having an authentic conversation around business models for an effective and efficient nonprofit sector can be difficult on top of the daily pressures of running a nonprofit. But, we believe much can be gained by having a neutral third party guide authentic conversations for nonprofits who are interested in moving forward for mission impact.

Now, let’s circle back to the ownership question. CEOs, staff and board members are catalyst for ensuring that nonprofits stay focused on mission to deliver the programs and services in a financially responsible manner. They do not, per se, own the nonprofit. OK, that’s all nice and academic, but is that the reality? Do folks stay focused on the mission or on the ownership?   Does the ownership question play a part when the ‘collaboration’ conversation begins?

Tell me what you think!


  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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