The future of infrastructure in the US – lessons for the UK?

Some of you might have come across Nonprofit Quarterly, a thoughtful, in-depth publication aimed at sector leaders that looks at issues ranging from ethics to fundraising. A recent special edition on infrastructure is well worth a look for UK people interested in the subject; if you haven’t got time to look at the full report (which is 72 excellent pages) then here are a few issues from the exec summary (page 11, if you want to look!):

1. Infrastructure is largely targeted at large nonprofits – not enough infrastructure supports small and medium organisations. I’m not convinced the problem is as bad here in the UK, but its nevertheless a point worth discussing. What might be of interest is the call for a “comprehensive, distributed system” of infrastructure support.

2. The ‘connective tissue’ of infrastructure is even more critical in a recession  The argument is made that the recession provides a window for smaller grassroots organisations to become more visible and apply their knowledge and skills to help communities – but infrastructure is needed to help them rise to this challenge. There are some well-crafted supporting arguments here that UK infrastructure organisations could use.

3. Well-networked nonprofits are more effective and more collaborative. Using the example of emergency response after the twin towers, it highlights that “well-networked nonprofits were able to identify and distribute resources faster on behalf of their constituents than those that were unconnected”. This clearly highlights the role of infrastructure bodies as the glue that binds civil society together.

4. Funding for infrastructure isn’t going to the right infrastructure organisations. There are some difficult messages here, in particular the charge that national bodies (with good connections to funders) are taking the lion’s share of funding. There is also an argument about who funds (foundations should do more), and the lack of diversity in the funding mix for infrastructure.

5. Infrastructure’s increasing research capacity and evidence base is not being applied to improve practice. Ouch. As a researcher, that one hurts. In the UK we are in the middle of building that research capacity, so don’t say we weren’t warned.

6. Infrastructure organisations have failed to take advantage of new technologies. There’s a particular emphasis on how nonprofits haven’t used ICT to facilitate collaboration or lower transaction costs.

7. Policy monitoring and advocacy will be crucial in the struggle years ahead. This is self-explanatory, but it jarred with another warning that infrastructure organisations will be using more of their capacity to generate income rather than produce ‘public goods’ that benefit all of the sector. It warned that there isn’t always a recognition that these public goods will never be self-financing.

The report isn’t without faults – in particular, the voice of infrastructure users doesn’t come through. The US is also, of course, a very different place to the UK. Don Griessman’s excellent blog (which is worth following in general) is particularly critical, but in turn identifies different ways forward that are worth debating, such as funding infrastructure by top-slicing programme grants.

But the important point is that it should stimulate dialogue and debate in your infrastructure organisation about what the next few years should look like and how you address them.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy and Volunteering, leads NCVO's volunteering, policy, research and campaigning work in the UK and internationally. With lead responsibility for shaping the external environment for the voluntary sector, he blogs about the big issues facing voluntary organisations.

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