March 1, 2005

Building a Viable Civic and Educational Infrastructure: The Essential Role of Nonprofit Leadership in Delivering Results

In this commentary on the 2005 Bridgespan Group report, "The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit," Tom Van Der Ark, the executive director of Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, suggest that nonprofit organizations have the potential to build the civic and educational infrastructure our children deserve, but only if they have the leadership to achieve their missions.

By: Tom Vander Ark, Executive Director, Education, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

A commentary on The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit

We live in a time and place with the greatest potential wealth accumulation in history. Most of us benefit from new technologies, inexpensive imported goods, relatively low taxes, and employment-based benefits. However, in the last few years it’s become clear that our public infrastructure is often insufficient to keep us safe or transport us efficiently; our environment is changing and our consumption of non-renewable energy sources is at least partially to blame; we can’t figure out how to pay for or share new health technologies; and gross inequities leave millions of people in poverty. To make matters worse, our political system is incapable of dealing with complex problems.

Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin put it this way:

[The Mexican debt crisis of 1995] demonstrates the difficulties our political processes have in dealing effectively with issues that involve technical complexities, shorter-term cost to achieve longer-term gain, incomplete information and uncertain outcomes, opportunities for political advantage, and inadequate public understandings. Unfortunately, many of the most important economic, geopolitical, and environmental challenges of today's complicated world fit this profile, raising the question of how effectively our political system will be able to deal with them.


One of the implications of the dilemma Rubin points out is that we need new civic and educational infrastructure. The nonprofit sector plays an integral part in bolstering and improving our public delivery systems. In education, nonprofits serve at least two vital roles:

  • Change agents: Local education funds, reform support organizations, and advocacy organizations attempt to steer and support school, district, and state improvement.
  • Service delivery: youth and family services, academic and recreational service groups, and health and human service organizations support unmet needs.

The needs grow every day. This report is one of the first attempts to quantify the mounting challenge of developing nonprofit leaders. Investing in leaders, improving compensation, and expanding recruiting efforts are important parts of the solution. Nonprofit organizations have the potential to build the civic and educational infrastructure our children deserve, but only if they have the leadership to achieve their missions.


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