Independent Sector

Independent Sector is a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen America's nonprofit (independent) sector. As a national leadership forum, the organization encourages philanthropy, volunteering, not-for-profit initiative and citizen action to help organizations within the sector better serve people and communities. As a membership organization, it also brings together leaders of various nonprofit organizations including foundations, volunteer organizations, and corporate giving programs.


The INDEPENDENT SECTOR is a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen America's nonprofit (independent) sector. As a national leadership forum, the organization encourages philanthropy, volunteering, not-for-profit initiative and citizen action to help organizations within the sector better serve people and communities. It is also a membership organization that brings together leaders of various nonprofit organizations. The members include leaders from foundations, voluntary organizations and corporate giving programs. The majority of its funding comes from membership dues, grants and contributions.

Historic Roots

The INDEPENDENT SECTOR was founded in 1980 and is based in Washington D.C. The organization was "formed to strengthen and promote a healthy, vibrant independent sector" (INDEPENDENT SECTOR). Founders, John W. Gardner and Brian O'Connell, strived to create a common meeting ground for organizations of the independent sector and to help preserve the sector. Though past associations had been unsuccessful, INDEPENDENT SECTOR has continued to grow in membership and expand its programs and education of the public. Since its founding, over 800 voluntary organizations, foundations, and corporate giving programs have participated in this national coalition.


Collectively called the independent sector, the nonprofit sector or the third sector, these organizations are educational, religious, arts and cultural, and human service and health organizations. The volunteers and staff of these organizations have a great impact on the quality of life of citizens in the United States. There are more than one million nonprofit organizations. According to the INDEPENDENT SECTOR, the total annual revenue of the sector is now over $500 billion, coming from contributions, fees and foundations, corporate and government grants. Over $100 billion is contributed annually by individuals (INDEPENDENT SECTOR). It is this type of research, conducted by the organization, which contributes to a better understanding of the nonprofit sector by the general public and policy makers.

The INDEPENDENT SECTOR works with a vast network of voluntary organizations, foundations, religious and social welfare groups, and corporate programs to improve the lives of people across the world and the United States. The INDEPENDENT SECTOR is a very important organization that represents the nonprofit sector's interests and has strengthened public policy affecting the sector, has educated the public about the sector, and has built a substantial body of research about the sector. The organization tries to promote the general welfare of citizens and encourages active citizen participation, preserves basic freedoms and collaborates with partnerships among government and business. It works to protect the health and viability of the independent sector and to build the support that is needed for the future.

According to the INDEPENDENT SECTOR, it outlines three main program goals/priorities. The first is to build public confidence and support for the nonprofit. Secondly, it builds a national network of partners that can be mobilized quickly for effective defeat attempts to gag nonprofit organizations, to protect to tax exemption, and to address other urgent matters as required. Finally, it increases the visibility and recognition of the INDEPENDENT SECTOR, both for members and nonmembers, as the leaders of the nonprofit sector in protecting its health and vitality.

The INDEPENDENT SECTOR concentrates on various areas of concerns in the INDEPENDENT SECTOR. They have a leadership, public policy, and research program. They also work with special projects and communication areas.


The INDEPENDENT SECTOR's Leadership Program provides information and education on issues related to organizational effectiveness and evaluation, accountability, ethics, and leadership qualities. The program brings together leaders from government, business, and the INDEPENDENT SECTOR to work on various issues and challenges.

Public Policy

The Public Policy Program works with policymakers in the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government on issues that may affect the independent sector. The organization implements ways to work with policy makers. They also work with other agencies to educate public leaders about the mission of the INDEPENDENT SECTOR and its contributions to society.


The research program promotes understanding by analyzing and collecting data on the scope, size, roles and contributions of the nonprofit sector in society. Through research, INDEPENDENT SECTOR can assess trends in individual giving and volunteering behavior. Its members and other coalitions work together to increase the level of useful information about convening researchers and practitioners around key subject areas.


The membership program strengthens the coalitions and reflects the diversity of the nonprofit sector and maintains a balance between the grantmaker and grant writing communities.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

"Fifty percent of all Americans are active volunteers, and they give an average of four hours a week to the causes of their choice. The base of participation is broad and spreading" (O'Connell p. 1). Working through organizations in the nonprofit sector, the individual citizen's creativity is enhanced, communities are enlivened, and individual responsibility is nurtured. According to O'Connell in Powered by Coalition, the independent sector is a source of deep and positive meaning in our national life. The sector represents civic pride, compassion, a philanthropic tradition, a strong problem-solving impulse, a sense of individual responsibility, and a commitment to the great shared-task of improving our lives together.

As an organization, the INDEPENDENT SECTOR works with staff, volunteers and citizens at the grassroots level to help contribute to the strength of nonprofits throughout our society. In addition, its staff and volunteers come from neighborhood improvement societies, overseas relief agencies, private schools and colleges, conservation and preservation groups, community foundations, hospitals, religious organizations, civil rights groups, fraternal societies, recreational centers, clinics, museums, and many more groups and organizations. With these deep ties and experience, INDEPENDENT SECTOR documents the giving and volunteering of citizens across the country; it educates public policy makers affecting the sector; it provides a meeting and leadership forum for nonprofits; and contributes to the philanthropic sector in many other ways.

Key Related Ideas

  • Coalition
  • Individual and Corporate Giving
  • Leadership
  • Lobbying
  • Membership
  • Nonprofit Organizations
  • Volunteering

Important People Related to the Topic

  • James W. Gardner
  • Brian O'Connell

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Alliance for Children and Families
  • American Red Cross

Related Web Sites



O'Connell, Brian. Powered by Coalition: The Story of the INDEPENDENT SECTOR. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997.

"INDEPENDENT SECTOR Issues Nonprofit Policy Recommendations." Philanthropy News Digest 6, no. 40 (September 26, 2000).

INDEPENDENT SECTOR [online]. Available: (30 March 2001).

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.