The social sector lost a pioneer—and we at Bridgespan a founding board chair and consistent voice of principle and excellence—when Brian O’Connell passed away recently. Amidst the tributes to his incredibly well-lived and productive life, it is worth hearkening back to some of Brian’s consistent warnings about the social sector’s uneasy dance with government, and the risks that nonprofits individually and the sector as a whole have effectively taken on in relying more and more on government funding.
In 1996, for example, at the peak of the service provision outsourcing boom then advocated as a breakthrough solution both by Vice President Al Gore’s Reinventing Government initiative and Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America—the title of Brian’s editorial in the Public Administration Review said it all: "A Major Transfer of Government Responsibility to Voluntary Organizations? Proceed with Caution."
Brian’s call for caution is if anything even more prescient and telling today, as government increasingly outsources not only the provision of social services but also more of the responsibility for paying for them to nonprofit providers. Consider the following excerpts from his 1996 essay:
"There is growing interest in transferring to voluntary organizations more organizational and financial responsibility for human services such as job training, low income housing, and care of distressed children. This raises the questions of how much of government's current activities and responsibilities can and should be shifted to voluntary organizations, and, more basically, how should the public business be conducted and paid for?"
"….It is important to indicate that as founding president of Independent Sector, the overall umbrella group for voluntarism and philanthropy, I believe in private initiative for the public good, but it is only fair to reveal also that my years of immersion in nonprofit labors have taught me as much about the limits of the sector as its strengths."
"….A caution must also be raised about where the money will come from to expand voluntary effort. It seems pretty certain that there will be less money to go around, and it has been my experience that when any level of government cuts budgets, the largest proportion is likely to come from partnership arrangements. Therefore, the transfer of responsibility is very likely to be disproportionate to the allocation of funds."
"….Government may decide to keep moving in the direction of greater reliance on voluntary institutions to fulfill essential services and programs, but it cannot do so on the assumption that it can reduce support of its service partners and expect the services to be expanded or even maintained."
Maybe in the end this is the ultimate measure of a visionary: that their words—and warnings—stand the test of time.
We will pick up tomorrow with another perennial concern of Brian’s—the challenge government-funded nonprofits face in being able to act as an "independent force" for good.
In the meantime, please share with us any Brian O’Connell stories you might have and/or your reactions to his viewpoints that we’ve reprised here.