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If We Could Be So Bold

By Nell Edgington

Inherent in our current time of constraint (struggling economy, crumbling institutions, unhealthy planet) is the opportunity of possibility.  As Margaret Drabble said, “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.”

But it is only possible if we seize the opportunity.  Nowhere is this more true than in the nonprofit sector.  Let’s admit it, the nonprofit sector tends to be risk averse.  And you could argue that the many constraints that they endure incent them to  be risk averse.  But what if nonprofit organizations seized the opportunity that this restructuring offers and became bold.  I mean really BOLD.

What if nonprofit organizations adopted massive, crazy, BOLD goals? The BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) that Jim Collins in Good to Great describes:

A BHAG is a huge and daunting goal — like a big mountain to climb. It is clear, compelling, and people “get it” right away. A BHAG serves as a unifying focal point of effort, galvanizing people and creating team spirit as people strive toward a finish line. Like the 1960s NASA moon mission, a BHAG captures the imagination and grabs people in the gut.

It is a massive, energizing, crazy goal that can bring people together, give them something to work for, make them part of a team that is doing something inventive, game-changing.

To Nathaniel Whittemore of the blog we are obligated to move the solutions we seek to a loftier realm.  Those working to solve social problems must be bigger, bolder, crazier, more disruptive in their goals:

Where I think it leaves us is with an obligation to push even harder. At the cusp of that last gasp of crazy, the forces that wish to uphold the status quo kick and fight even harder. The former gatekeepers will not leave without a fight. We need to be even more bold, because at the end of the day, I don’t want 20% better nonprofits with a fundraising strategy better optimized for online giving. I want disruptive change that rights wrongs and realigns incentives for a more sustainable, just future.

And Dan Pallotta agrees.  He challenges nonprofits to take a cue from the moon program as well and create massive goals:

Nonprofit organizations have to join forces and begin committing themselves to impossible goals that address the massive social problems we confront, and they must define those goals in time and space — a cure for MS in 10 years; the end of homelessness in Boston in 10 years, and so on. Think of President Kennedy’s challenge: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” No wiggle room there…

But bold goals are not just for the sake of goals.  Those massive, crazy goals propel an organization forward.  They galvanize staff, board, volunteers, funders to get up from their chairs, to step away from mindless, boring meetings, to enlist their friends, family, colleagues, to invest time and resources until it hurts. Bold goals are the rallying cry that moves us toward solutions, compels us to fix broken systems, to break out of our inertia:

If a courageous group of nonprofits would call for the end of child hunger in D.C. within seven years, we’d have to start talking seriously about…all of the…structural problems like admin:program ratios, inadequate investment in infrastructure…and those discussions would actually be exciting. There would be a reason to reframe the present structure. To try to reframe that structure in the absence of a compelling context…[is] like trying to develop a lunar module in the absence of any goal to get to the moon. You wouldn’t know anything about the booster that would carry it, the rendezvous strategy, weight limits, etc. Everything you did would be ineffective…Daring goals, set in time and space are the only way to get there. Any less courageous path lands us exactly in the chaotic and ineffectual place we stand today. And that’s a long way from the moon.

I’ve seen with my clients how massive goals can transform organizations and galvanize them toward solutions.  When they have decided to take on exponential growth instead of incremental growth.  When they have moved from working to grow their services by 50% each year to working toward addressing 50% of the need.  The former can address the needs of 100 new clients a year, the latter can move towards actually eradicating the problem all together. This change in perspective, in goals, can revolutionize an organization.  No longer are the board, staff and funders content to add a few sites each year with no end goal in sight.  Rather, they understand and rally around their long-term goal, which is to solve a problem.  And they see every effort they make, every meeting they come to, every investment they secure as getting them that much closer to that solution.  It can transform an organization, and ultimately transform a problem.  And isn’t that really what we are all here to do?

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009 Nonprofits, scale, Social Entrepreneurship

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6 Comments to If We Could Be So Bold

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by . said: […]

[…] Those are massive questions and a massive undertaking.  But didn’t I just say that the nonprofit sector needs to be more bold?  Perhaps this is a step in the right […]

[…] Those are massive questions and a massive undertaking.  But didn’t I just say that the nonprofit sector needs to be more bold?  Perhaps this is a step in the right […]

[…] What exactly is a BHAG? […]

[…] What exactly is a BHAG? […]

[…] and their high-performing team of board, staff, funders and volunteers to ask hard questions, make bold goals, push themselves harder, and deliver more and more […]

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