Is the Civil Sector in Death Spiral Mode?

Withering tree

Wither civil society?

Today’s post is a quick – yet very thought-provoking – share.

I happened upon Ruth McCambridge’s feature story for Nonprofit Quarterly, Jeremy Rifkin: The Future of the Economy is There for the Civil Sector to Claim.  In it she dissects Rifkin’s op ed for the New York Times, “The Rise of Anti-Capitalism.” I often hear a lot of doom and gloom about our sector, so this inspired me.

Maybe we’re not in a death spiral. Yet.

But we do have to create our own future.

One of the things McCambridge and Rifkin both talk about is how easy it is for the civil sector to assume a parasitic culture of dependency. We define ourselves by what we’re not – nonprofit or nongovernmental.

We worry about fundraising non-stop, wringing our hands that we’ll have to shut our doors if we don’t get a grant… corporate sponsor… major donor… and so forth. We wait, and pray, for gifts to fall from heaven. Our hair turns gray while we wait.

We don’t think enough about how to become our own best funders (e.g., developing a steady stream of endowment income; building a strong legacy program; building social ventures and other earned income initiatives).

Rifkin believes in the primacy of the sector (which I personally have long been calling “social benefit” rather than nonprofit) because it addresses culture and spirit and cooperative interaction. He notes we are fast approaching a worker-less society, and that our economy is becoming based on an “Internet of Things.” He writes:

“The Internet of Things is a game-changing platform that enables an emerging collaborative commons to flourish alongside the capitalist market. This collaborative rather than capitalistic approach is about shared access rather than private ownership… Nowhere is the zero marginal cost phenomenon having more impact than the labor market, where workerless factories and offices, virtual retailing, and automated logistics and transport networks are becoming more prevalent. Not surprisingly, the new employment opportunities lie in the collaborative commons in fields that tend to be nonprofit and strengthen social infrastructure—education, healthcare, aiding the poor, environmental restoration, child care and care for the elderly, the promotion of the arts and recreation.”

McCambridge  notes that Rifkin has been pretty spot-on with past predictions, which is why she thinks we should take note of this one. Still, she ponders:

“With all of the discussion about social enterprise, this sector still too often operates in the margins of the economy. Can that change? Should it?”

What do you think?

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  1. W. Brian Arthur argues that the digitization is creating a second economy that’s vast, automatic and invisible.
    He further suggests that business processes that once took place among human beings are now being executed electronically in an unseen domain that is strictly digital among servers, switches, routers and all sorts of telecommunication and Internet devices. Thus, creating a second economy this is digital.

    • You are correct! We now live with a second economy—of all of our digitized business processes conversing, executing, and triggering further actions — and it’s forming alongside the physical economy. This second economy isn’t producing anything tangible, but it’s running everything. And it runs with many less physical jobs. So… where will the physical jobs be in the years ahead? Perhaps in the helping economy. Great article to bring up!

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