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From Nonprofit Scarcity to Social Change Abundance

By Nell Edgington



nasa celebratesBill Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit aimed at ending childhood hunger in America, wrote a really interesting post recently. He argues that nonprofits must be more bold, that the risk aversion that defines the sector is itself holding nonprofits back from creating change.

Shore encourages nonprofit leaders to figure out exactly what they are trying to accomplish:

Nonprofit organizations would be well served to step back from the day-to-day operations and ask themselves what success means, how will they know when they have accomplished their mission, and how will they measure it along the way. It sounds like common sense, but almost no one does it, in part because it’s so hard to do. But if you answer those questions with precision and clarity, and articulate the goal you hope to achieve, everything else falls into place.

And Bill is not alone in making this charge to the nonprofit sector. The Case Foundation, founded by Steve and Jean Case who made millions from AOL, has made its focus getting nonprofits to be more bold, to Be Fearless.

But if we are going to ask nonprofits to think bigger we have to address the elephant in the room: money. Nonprofit leaders often put themselves in a vicious cycle of thinking they don’t have enough money to be risky, so they don’t create ambitious goals, and then their lack of ambition impedes greater outside investment.

It is in fact the very act of being bold that inspires action and investment, that marshals resources to do the impossible. The most obvious example is John F. Kennedy’s 1962 charge to “to go to the moon in this decade.” At the time, the goal he set was crazy. NASA had no idea how they were going to make that happen, and they were already behind the Russian space program. But the very fact that the goal was set, and set so publicly, was inspiring.  That simple act of inspiration moved people, money, resources. And Kennedy’s goal came to fruition in July of 1969. The impossible became possible simply because he set a goal.

Often nonprofit leaders are hesitant to set a bold goal because they know they currently don’t have the money, staff, relationships to make it happen. They don’t want to set a goal whose execution is not readily evident. So often nonprofit leaders start from a point of scarcity. They ask the question:

“How much can we accomplish with what we can raise?”

Instead, nonprofit leaders need to start asking the question:

“How much should we raise to accomplish our goals?”

It may seem like semantics, but I believe the distinction is profound. Instead of money holding you back, money becomes a tool to employ in accomplishing something much bigger. If you start by setting bold goals about what change you want to create, that very act, the act of putting a stake in the sand, can inspire. And that inspiration can attract the things you need to make your goal a reality.

In order to set bold goals, nonprofit leaders need to remember why they started their organization in the first place and why they continue to come to work each day. What is that passionate resolve that keeps you going every day? Why are you pouring your heart and soul into the work? What ultimately are you trying to change about the world we live in?

Start there. Create your bold goal from that place. Remove the obstacle of not having enough and watch how you suddenly have more than you could have ever imagined. That’s where real change begins.

Photo Credit: Mission Controls celebrates the moon landing, NASA.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), 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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11 Comments to From Nonprofit Scarcity to Social Change Abundance

[...] Bill Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit aimed at ending childhood hunger in America, wrote a really interesting post recently.  [...]

Dan
February 13, 2013

The Case Foundation could start being fearless by (a) accepting unsolicited applications and (b) giving away more money, particularly in the form of unrestricted general operating grants.

On a less sarcastic note, what Bill Shore has done with SOS is impressive and to be commended. And his blog post is excellent in many ways (particularly: “Many well-intentioned organizations take credit for success but avoid accountability for specific, hard-to-achieve outcomes.” Ha!) But I see some flaws in the overall approach, particularly in the overall tone.

Bill Shore is wrong to embrace- as the Be Fearless campaign does- the mentality that nonprofits are at fault here. Nonprofits everywhere are working incredibly hard to solve some of the toughest challenges our society has to offer. Even truly great nonprofits (lift, dc central kitchen, etc) 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.

It is telling that Bill Shore’s mission- solving childhood hunger- is largely addressed through government spending programs, and that much of their impact of their work at least appears to derive from helping states and localities develop plans to better access federal funding. What happens when those same programs come under attack? The Women, Infants and Children program just took a huge budget hit (and will take another with sequestration). And while I see many 10 point plans on the SOS website from 2008, I see no updated progress plans, or timelines that detail how far they’ve made it towards achieving their goals.

The broader point is that 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”. Bill Shore did (and does) and more power to him for executing and building an awesome organization. But 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?

Nell Edgington
February 13, 2013

Dan,

I think you raise some important points, and I agree with you that foundations (and donors overall) ALSO need to be bold in how they give so that it is easier for nonprofits to finance their work. And I agree with you that government funding is also incredibly problematic. 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 and contractors, 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.

I think we can all agree that the continual cycle of “fighting and scrapping for every dollar” doesn’t work anymore. So let’s try something new. Let’s try being bold in every aspect of what we do in the nonprofit sector. That’s where I think change will come from.

Dan
February 13, 2013

One more thing I should add- SOS does have some data on their webpage. This is really awesome. It doesn’t lead me to think they will end childhood hunger by 2015, but they do put up charts that display some generally accepted, independent outcomes in the states they work in, such as:
http://bestpractices.nokidhungry.org/nkh-campaigns/louisiana

The first indicator (childhood food insecurity rate) is how I assume they’ll measure their success. But all of the indicators are great and I wish more nonprofits put that sort of thing on their website. Hopefully they’ll put up 2011-12 data soon so we can see what sort of progress is being made.

Dan
February 14, 2013

Nell, I think you’re absolutely right. 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. These are the people who have the deep knowledge necessary for change. Not that I, as a younger staff member, had nothing to contribute, but the breadth and depth of the knowledge of a talented ED with decades of experience is something to behold. I wish more of those experienced nonprofit professionals had the freedom to implement the visions they can articulate over a couple of beers.
I heard a great speaker recently who has developed some advanced ideas about nonprofit overhead sharing for very small, grassroots nonprofits. She mentioned that it was something that she had been tossing around in her mind for months, if not years, 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. Sounds like a governance issue, but that’s a topic for another comment.

Nell Edgington
February 14, 2013

Dan,

I agree with you, nonprofit leaders are often so swamped by the day-to-day that they don’t have time for the big picture strategy, let alone big, bold goals. But I don’t think the answer lies in taking them away from the program with a sabbatical, rather I think it has to do with making strategy, and making boldness, part of the culture and the day-to-day work of the organization. I talked about this recently here: http://www.socialvelocity.net/2013/02/reader-question-how-to-make-time-for-strategy/

Thomas Cole
February 25, 2013

It seems to me that this conversaton centers around what ONE nonprofit can achieve. Unfortunately, today’s declining economy and citizen’s heightened expectations guarantee this old-school “we-can-do-it-alone” attitude will fail.

Stanford’s Social Innovation program released a paper a year ago outlining a new paradigm shift wherein whole NPO communities come together to share resources and tackle their challenges together. This new model is called “Collective Impact.”

This effort goes beond the limitations of coalitions and associations as it is typically not project (short-term) based.

It’s worth the reading. It calls for loftier (bolder?) goals, as Nell urges. Yet it limits participants to their area of expertise (as Dan explains). Here’s the link to the excellent article (and new model) = http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/collective_impact

Nell Edgington
February 25, 2013

Thomas, it is a great article, thanks for sharing it with the Social Velocity readers. It is a very exciting approach and is definitely quite bold.

Katie Borden
February 26, 2013

Nell,

I believe that inertia drives a lot of decision-making at non-profits and that bad plans aren’t always reevaluated before significant resources are sunk into them. I’ve worked in large and small international non-profit organizations and have witnessed how inspiring bold thinking can be for an organization. However, the biggest hurdle isn’t always resistance to change or inertia, but often a lack of planning for implementing that grand vision. There must be a strategic planning process that ties what every person in the organization does into that bold vision and support for staff to realize their ambitious goals. And even those plan have to be evaluated and measured to make sure that all the activities you are doing are actually leading to the change you are trying to create. This takes discipline, resourcefulness and honesty, which don’t always come with big thinking.

Nell Edgington
February 27, 2013

Katie,

I agree with you completely. It’s not enough to have a bold vision, you have to figure out how you are going to marshal resources to make that vision a reality. Part of that is recognizing if you don’t have enough resources and figuring out how to get more, and part of it is being disciplined and systematic about using those resources effectively. And I think you are right, the most successful social change leaders are those who can do both big thinking and big implementing.

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