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Do Nonprofit Leaders Have Time to Be Bold?

By Nell Edgington

hamster wheelA reader of my blog post earlier this month, From Nonprofit Scarcity to Social Change Abundance, took issue with my argument that nonprofit leaders need to be more bold. He believes that I, and others, should stop telling nonprofit leaders to chart bolder goals because nonprofit leaders simply don’t have the time or resources. I think his comments and our subsequent exchange (you can read the whole comment string here) illustrate the self-imposed limitations that hold some nonprofits back.

In his comment on my blog post, Dan Owens argues that nonprofits are not at fault for limiting their goals. Nonprofits’ very lack of resources holds them back, and it is unreasonable to try to push nonprofits to be more bold:

Nonprofits everywhere are working incredibly hard to solve some of the toughest challenges our society has to offer. Even truly great nonprofits…are stretched to capacity, and even those who embrace all the latest trends and business models cannot solve all the problems they seek to address. The money doesn’t exist, and without sustained and increased federal funding for nonprofits and those they serve, we will not be able to solve the problems we hope to achieve, including childhood hunger…Nonprofits need more resources. You’re right in saying that nonprofit leaders often design plans based upon last year’s fundraising figures. But they have very good reasons to be afraid, and to worry for the future and the clients they serve. They don’t have the freedom and money to make those “pie in the sky plans”…most nonprofit have to fight and scrap for every dollar they have, contributed, earned or applied for. And then they have to do it all again the next year. Is it any wonder they operate as they do?

But my point with the blog post, and really my point with the entire blog and Social Velocity in general, is that nonprofits have to break out of the starvation cycle of never having enough to do more. Instead of embracing the fact that the nonprofit sector is incredibly under-resourced, nonprofits must see past that and envision a future where they have everything they need to accomplish bold social change. It is the very act of turning scarcity on its head that creates abundance, as I point out to Dan:

You have clearly delineated many of the funding problems inherent in the nonprofit sector. There is no doubt that nonprofits need more resources. But the only way that will happen is if nonprofits become more bold, not just with “pie in the sky plans” (which I, by the way, think are absolutely critical) but also by being more bold with funders, government regulators…board members. My whole point with the Financing Not Fundraising series, and really this blog overall, is that nonprofits must break out of the cycle of “fighting and scrapping for every dollar they have.” That is an unsustainable scenario. Instead of accepting the shortcomings of the current funding for the nonprofit sector, let’s get bold about asking for more. But that request must be made in the name of bold goals for social change.

Still seeing the current hurdles standing in the way of bold goals in the nonprofit sector, Dan wonders if the solution might lie in separating nonprofit leaders from the day-to-day work of their organizations so that they have the time and space for envisioning true social change:

I believe one of our greatest challenges is to get those in the nonprofit sector with the real knowledge (usually EDs working on the ground) to have the time and space to work up the bold (and yes, fearless) ideas. Everywhere I have worked I have had the all-too-rare conversation with the ED or program director who can articulate the overall bold vision but cannot see how that can be achieved within the current framework and particularly without harming those they currently serve- because the disruptive innovation necessary would take resources away from current programs…I heard a great speaker recently who [had a great idea for change] but she never really had the chance to build the idea out until she took a few weeks off from her job and was able to really focus on specifics and practical considerations. Perhaps that is what we need more of — sabbaticals, and then planning to implement the bold ideas.

Again, I believe this is the wrong approach. Bold action must be part of the day-to-day work of the organization. We can no longer separate big picture strategy from the day-to-day work of the nonprofit sector. Every effort, every resource, every staff member must be engaged in the larger vision of social change. It must become part of the everyday culture of the nonprofit sector, not just the purview of the elite few at the top, or an exercise conducted a few times per year.

If we are going to truly break free of the hamster wheel and make social change a reality, we must make bold vision part of every day life in the sector.

What do you think? Do the resource constraints of the nonprofit sector stand in the way of big, bold goals?

Photo Credit: cdrussorusso

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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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8 Comments to Do Nonprofit Leaders Have Time to Be Bold?

Al Huntoon
February 25, 2013

Yes and no. Resource constraints do not stand in the way of articulating a vision of social change. If by bold you mean brave, courageous, or daring this has got to be balanced with sustainable, practical strategies. No doubt, you could reply that the two things are not mutually exclusive but anyone with any amount of experience is going to know that they are not really complimentary either. So going beyond articulation and actually pursuing goals that adhere to these divergent characteristics means managing multiple priorities that do not overlap. Managing priorities means managing limited resources; time, money, etc.

In addition, I know of too many examples of bold visions compellingly articulated resulting in ample short term support. However, often the efforts described in such bold, visionary terms were not able to realize tangible results. These efforts eventually died out because bold visions are much more interesting and easier than the hard work of facilitating meaningful change.

I would argue that there needs to some experimentation, some risks taken in the pursuit of social change, however these need to be rational risks grounded in the understanding that the philanthropic resources in a particular communities are at any given time limited. I realize that you would not espouse that sort of short term planning but what I don’t think it is prudent to ignore the inherent risks either.

I think the best place to start if you put a value on boldness, is by recognizing that typically the day-to-day work that so many nonprofits engage in itself takes courage. And that the courage, to do the hard work of caring for vulnerable people is worthy of support on its own merits, regardless of results. That, in my opinion, is the source of much of the onslaught of criticism and advice for the nonprofit sector – as a society we are failing to recognize the value of a valiant effort to alleviate a serious problem regardless of results. To go into a challenging situation, care for neglected people, and do so in a fashion that is often under or unappreciated is to choose to be bold, courageous, daring.

That is not to say that results do not matter, I believe they do. But respect for the hard work should come first. The constant drum beat of critical admonition serves to erode respect and leads to undervaluing the difficult work so many people in the sector perform.

We would do well to bear in mind, that while important, “the larger vision of social change” is an utter abstraction compared to the immediate hardship of a person in need or pain and efforts to reach out and alleviate the suffering or want experienced.

[…] A reader of my blog post earlier this month, From Nonprofit Scarcity to Social Change Abundance, took issue with my argument that nonprofit leaders need to be more bold.  […]

[…] Nell Edgington, president of Social Velocity, from “Do Nonprofit Leaders Have Time to be Bold?“ […]

Karl Wilding
March 27, 2013

Interesting discussion – and a discussion that chimes with those myself and fellow trustees at Creating the Future (a nonprofit based in the US) have been having about what is the right level to pitch our aims. Our founder, Hildy Gottlieb, has argued that failing to aim high – a poverty of ideas – in itself can lead to failure when aiming low – a poverty of resources. Her ted talk is here if anyone is interested:

Nell Edgington
March 28, 2013

That’s really great, Karl. Thanks so much for sharing!

Jane Garthson
April 1, 2013

I’m very much with you, Neil. A focus on the abundance that is available is critical, not a focus on what our community organizations lack. And an inspiring vision can attract new resources in a way that “help us survive” never can. As Karl says, this discussion is at the heart of Creating the Future. Love to have you join one of our Twitterchats – next one is April 16th at 4 pm EST. #npcons.

Vantage Point in Vancouver has also brought out The Abundant Nonprofit. We hope and believe that positive thinking such as you express is spreading, for we need optimism that we can create a better future.

Nell Edgington
April 1, 2013

Thanks Jane, I’m glad to hear the sentiment resonates with you and what you are seeing.

I’m actually planning to join (via Google Hangout) the April 8th Creating the Future board meeting, per Hildy Gottlieb’s request. I’m really excited to learn more about what you all are doing and thinking. Thanks for the invite!

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