by David B. Marcu

Much has been written and said about nonprofit organizations (NPO’s) projecting “value propositions” and the blurring of the lines between NPO’s that provide social services and their profit making counterparts. In today’s environment – here in Israel and elsewhere – providers of social services are frequently viewed as “suppliers” and “vendors” providing services “on contract” for government offices that fund them for that purpose, without distinction to whether they are nonprofits or not. Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) are frequently issued in a way that attempts to “level the playing field” in ways that seemingly ignore the previous relationships, and indeed partnerships, that NPO’s so carefully fostered with their government funders.

In an era where so many social services are outsourced and put out for bids, one might expect that the differences between NPO’s and profit-making providers are small or not even relevant today. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While it is quite possible that profit making entities consider themselves to have a social mission – side by side with their commitment to material gain, this is usually a happy outcome, not a primary focus. In addition, such profit making entities may be no less committed to quality of service and the satisfaction of their service recipients than are their nonprofit counterparts. Here too, such positive outcomes may be a result of a competitive market place, or even a commitment to quality and service. For-profit entities may be prepared to make significant investments in training, facility enhancement and new initiatives leading to services of a fine quality and to good results.

So is there, in today’s highly competitive service environment – and should there be – a comparative advantage to NPO’s and should government look favorably upon them as providers of more than just “contracted services?” The answer is not only a resounding “yes” but the very fact that the question must be asked means that those of us in the nonprofit world must do a more effective job of government relations.

First and foremost, social service NPO’s – by definition – are primarily committed to a social agenda. They are guided by their stated mission and are overseen by boards, committees, contracted internal and external auditors as well as countless government auditors. They are required to function in a transparent and upfront manner, and must answer to the recipients of their services and frequently their family members or advocates as well.

Second, NPO’s nearly always add value beyond their government funding in a plethora of ways. Funds are raised for organizational capacity, training, public information campaigns, and collaborative projects with other NPO’s and, of course, facility improvement.

Because of the nature of the marketplace, NPO’s tend to see their competitors as partners in many ways, even while remaining aware of the competitive nature of their relationship. Private funders increasingly ask that NPO’s collaborate and advocate together for changes in public policy and public awareness and – most important – work together to serve overlapping service recipients.

NPO’s are, as well, a critical part of civil society and are not mere service providers but a valued piece of the puzzle that reflects a society committed to those who need support.

NPO’s are – or at least should be – committed to helping people empower themselves in ways that improve the quality of their lives. Outcomes are not the only means of measuring success when the processes can be shown to respect and value the individual as a person with rights and dignity.

NPO’s are not perfect, and some are even flawed. But on the whole, the contribution that NPO’s make to society is greater, and is meant to be greater, than the sum of their funding. It behooves all of us to lend our local NPO’s a hand – as volunteers, leaders and donors. Their social missions, indeed, their “value propositions,” must be met and in ways that provide value beyond all comparisons to mere “suppliers” or “vendors,” and NPO’s should be recognized for their fundamental contribution to helping achieve a better society for us all.

David B. Marcu is the CEO of Israel Elwyn, an organization that provides support services for children and adults with disabilities and their families. He is the immediate past president of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services, and is a member of the board of directors of the Israel Council for Social Welfare and the professional advisory committee for youth and disabilities of “Tevet”, the employment subsidiary of the JDC.