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Fixing the World Requires Disruptive, not Incremental, Change

By Nell Edgington

The nonprofit sector has always been, at its core, about social disruption–some sort of disequilibrium exists in the market (poverty, unequal access to healthcare, segregation, homelessness, hunger) and a nonprofit organization is born to correct it. But somewhere along the way the big changes nonprofits sought to make in social norms, inadequate institutions, and unfair systems shrunk to small, incremental changes. Visions of disruption gave way to plans for the incremental. But we need to find our way back to disruption.

Incremental change is when a small portion of a problem is addressed.  It’s the idea that 10% of hungry children are fed, or 15% of at-risk youth go to college. Incremental change is small, endless steps toward solving a huge problem. At an incremental rate you begin to wonder if the problem will actually ever go away.

Disruptive change, on the other hand, is about reaching a tipping point where the solution, rather than the problem, becomes the norm.  It’s the vision of giving every kid a bright future. Or the goal of ending hunger.  Disruptive change is not just about the idea of scale, a key component of the social entrepreneurship movement where solutions are expanded to other cities or other people who could benefit. Disruption is in essence about reaching a point at which there is no going back. The old way yields to a new one.

A great example of disruptive change is the charter school movement. The American public education system is quite broken. But charter schools like Aspire, Green Dot, and KIPP have disrupted that broken system and are creating a new model of getting kids, who would otherwise drop out of the system, to college. None of these three charter school will ever reach all kids who need them, but rather these schools are demonstrating how to educate poor, at-risk kids. And the idea is that their model will be adopted as the norm by the American public education system. And given the Obama administration’s interest in these models, that could actually become a reality.

Or take homelessness, another seemingly intractable problem. The goal of  Common Ground, a nonprofit in New York City focusing on homelessness, is to “change the social and economic forces that undermine stability and health, and produce homelessness.” They want to completely end homelessness by changing the underlying systems that cause it. And it looks like they are doing just that in New York City. They have already reduced homelessness in Times Square by 87% and throughout the city by 47%.  Eradicating homelessness in the largest city in the country, that’s pretty disruptive.

But charter schools and Common Ground are the exceptions, rather than the rule in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits are encouraged to think and act incrementally because they don’t often know where funding will come from year to year. It is difficult to make huge goals or attack big problems if the resources for execution are uncertain.  An undercapitalized, highly competitive market like the one in which nonprofits operate does not incent disruptive change.

But disruption, by its very nature, is uncertain and risky. More than anything else it involves a change in mindset. A commitment to disruption is a determination not to let fear and resource constraints hold you back from the disruption the market requires. The nonprofit sector needs to get back to its roots. Incremental change just doesn’t cut it anymore. Let’s get back to the disruption that defines the sector.

Photo Credit: tcpix

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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.

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2 Comments to Fixing the World Requires Disruptive, not Incremental, Change

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by changefeed, csween. csween said: RT @nedgington: Let's get back to disruptive, instead of incremental, change in the #nonprofit sector: […]

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ajproc, Justinas Pagirys. Justinas Pagirys said: Fixing the World Requires Disruptive, not Incremental, Change: #socent […]

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