What does Expertise or Specialization in Nonprofits Entail? Voices from JNPOC

Posted on November 25, 2015
by Kazuho Tsuchiya

*This essay was originally written for “Shiten-Ronten” (Our Perspective, Our Point) on the JNPOC Japanese website on December 20, 2012

Training courses for nonprofit organizations that are aimed at building specialized knowledge and skills in areas such as public relations, accounting, fundraising, and volunteer management are being held all over the country these days. There are various reasons behind this, including a growing need to promote project and staff expertise, efficiency, and rationalization as nonprofits become incorporated and begin developing their organizational operations, and as they engage in collaborative projects with the government or private businesses. Logically speaking, because nonprofits are corporations with paid employees, they must make ends meet, and as they grow, they must also nurture individual expertise and re-evaluate how their organizations are being managed. When the people in an organization begin thinking that its staff members “lack expertise” or that “the organization needs strengthening,” this is because they want it to progress (or think it should) from an “amateur” organization to a “professional” one that possesses expertise.

That being said, the exact meaning of the terms “expertise” and “specialization” must be considered when speaking of “the need for more expertise among nonprofit staff” or of the “need to develop the organization’s specialty.” Indeed, these concepts may sound grand, but they include elements that may chip away at the “true nature” of a nonprofit, which should have civil society activities at its core. This point is explained below.

First, let’s think about what “expertise” for a nonprofit worker means. To me, this means having specialized “civic” knowledge (or “civic” expertise), which is formed through the interplay of practical knowledge and explicit knowledge. It is not something that can be nurtured through vocational training. One might call it a specialized knowledge that results from the process of sifting through already existing information (explicit knowledge) or interpreting this information according to context to solve problems, based on a foundation of knowledge and skills (empirical knowledge and rules) that has been gained through practical activities in the field. The philosopher Richard Rorty argues that rather than being the pursuit of truth, knowledge should be closely tied to practical goals and respond to our surrounding environment, and that it can be a means for building a more democratic society. This seems very similar to the idea of specialized “civic” knowledge.”

What should we careful about when using the term “expertise” in describing nonprofit staff as “needing more expertise”? We should be wary of the “technical-rational value system” or “professionalism” that is inherent in the word. According to Donald Schön, a scholar on organizational learning, technical rationality is knowledge that is scientifically and expertly accurate and systematically standardized. However, if nonprofits’ “expertise” (or specialized “civic” knowledge”)is absorbed into the realm of technical rationality, the “true nature” of a nonprofit, which entails critical worldview and practical knowledge based on situated and reflective learning, may be lost, and that is to say that there is a danger that excessive emphasis on professionalism suppresses art, vision, and creativity.

Now let’s think about what we must consider when using the term “specialization” when discussing the “need to further the organization’s specialty.” There is no denying the fact that as organizations, nonprofits must also focus on management and operations. Indeed, many nonprofits use business administration methods such as management, governance, stakeholders, and marketing to verify whether the organization is being run effectively, or to investigate strategic project development. This also explains the reason for the above-mentioned nonprofit training courses, giving context to the need to reevaluate organizational structures and improve staff skills. The use of these methods, however, is just a matter of form. In order for us to not become caught in our organization’s “professionalism,” should we not then continue to question our fundamental principles, the origin of our activities, and ask why we are doing certain things and who we are doing them for? In the case of the Japan NPO Center, our fundamental principles include being the organization that came up with the “Seven Necessary Conditions for Reliable Nonprofit Organizations” and working closely with the affected areas in various disaster assistance projects. Furthermore, it is only when JNPOC’s organizational mission (why we are acting and who we are acting for) is reflected in projects that merge with our staff “expertise” (again, why and for whom is it necessary?) that our “specialty” emerges.

by Kazuho Tsuchiya, Japan NPO Center