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Nonprofits Must Leave the Kid’s Table: An Interview with Cindy Gibson

By Nell Edgington



Cindy GibsonIn today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Cindy Gibson. Cindy is a consultant to national foundations and nonprofits providing support to improve capacity and program effectiveness. She is a widely published author and blogger on issues affecting the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. Cindy has been named one of the Nonprofit Times’ Power and Influence Top 50.

You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: Your writing tends to pull back the curtain on some of the “politeness” that goes on in the nonprofit sector and encourages more authentic conversations. Yet the tendency to seek consensus instead of conflict is fundamental to the sector and its long history, so how and where do we start having more productive, challenging conversations as a sector?

Cindy: This question nicely acknowledges the unique role the nonprofit sector can and does play in an increasingly polarized world, but that doesn’t mean the same sector necessarily values consensus over all else, including conflict. Historically, nonprofits have been at the forefront of passionate debates over some of the most difficult and divisive issues we’ve ever faced as a country—civil rights and abortion, for example.

Relatively speaking, though, nonprofits may be less predatory when it comes to how they work and the goals they want to achieve. That’s all good, but it doesn’t mean that nonprofits are or should be immune from criticism or legitimate questions about what they’re doing, how and for what purpose. Unfortunately, I think we’ve become so averse to that kind of open dialogue and critical analysis. As a result, the few people who are brave enough to raise questions are immediately labeled as “negative” or “a naysayer,” which slams the door shut on any hope of deeper discussion.

I think that’s because challenge sometimes is seen as being critical of the good intentions behind doing “God’s work.” But good intentions aren’t mutually exclusive from honesty and critical thinking. Honesty with the intent of finding out where there’s agreement, disagreement, what’s substantive and what’s smoke and mirrors can be transformational. After all, just because we might believe something is “effective,” doesn’t mean that it actually is. The danger in eschewing healthy skepticism is that organizations that aren’t particularly effective but receive a disproportionately high percentage of funding leaves organizations that are getting results with less support.

I can think of at least two examples of organizations – one national and one international – that have instant name recognition and are frequently held up as exemplars. Both have very charismatic leaders and are extremely savvy in marketing themselves and their brand. Both organizations, however, also have been the focus of studies by highly credible evaluators who found little or no data demonstrating their effectiveness. In fact, what data does exist shows that these groups are actually failing to achieve their stated missions. Nevertheless, they continue to receive millions of dollars from the same foundations that tout the virtues of evidence-based philanthropy, and their nonprofit colleagues continue to roll their eyes privately when these organizations are trumpeted as “models.”

Another place where critical thinking (and honesty) is desperately needed is when new organizations that may be replicating what others have been doing for years are hailed as “innovative.” And in fact, without more healthy skepticism, we’ll continue to lag behind other fields when it comes to innovation, which is built on critical thinking and disruption.

I think the first step toward breaking this cycle is to provide more platforms that are intentional about giving where people can express their opinions and ideas without fear of ad hominen attacks that tend to squelch the discussions we need to have. We can loosen up the tightly buttoned format of some of these events and allow for more humor, personality and insouciance. Fewer power points, more spontaneity.

We also need more venues in which to suss out what’s hype and what’s real so that people outside the inner circles of “the newest best thing” can understand what’s being promoted and what they think about it. Take social impact bonds, for example. A lot of what’s written about these is by people who are steeped in finance backgrounds, leaving those who aren’t confused and, in turn, disinterested in finding out more. As a result, there’s little serious debate about whether these are really all they’re cracked up to be, since there’s not much hard evidence, to date, as to whether they work. Yet, millions of dollars have been poured into their creation and rollout.

We also need more investigative journalism about nonprofits and philanthropy—not just in the mainstream but trade press as well. That’s difficult, given that most nonprofit information sources tend to be supported with grant dollars, making it difficult for them to be openly critical or truthful, especially when it comes to funders. But as foundations and nonprofits veer into territory previously relegated to either government or the private sector, there will be more attention focused on the issues that are natural byproducts of these changes: public accountability, mission creep, profit motivation and others. We’re already seeing it in stories about whether foundations have too much power in influencing public policy and whether citizens are being left out of important decisionmaking processes that involve only those with the financial resources to have access to that table. Something we can do right now though is encourage the same news outlets that don’t hesitate to cite “anonymous sources” in other fields to do likewise in reporting about philanthropy, which can be just as retributive against people who go on the record with critical comments.

Nell: One of the most difficult places for open, honest conversation is between nonprofits and the philanthropists who fund them because of an inherent power imbalance. Can we ever hope to overcome that and if so, how?

Cindy: While there is clearly a power imbalance baked into most transactional dynamics—including funding—I think it’s important that we don’t frame the need for more honest conversation as one that’s only about the funder/grantseeker relationship, which can usually be summed up as “funder bad, grantseeker good.”

I’d suggest that nonprofits themselves are reluctant to engage in honest public discussions about their peers.That silence is understandable, but it can be self-defeating—for both nonprofits and grant makers. Nonprofits aren’t given the chance to have thoughtful and open conversations about what’s not working so they could use that information help them strengthen their own activities. And philanthropists don’t have the benefit of getting honest, first-hand perspectives from a broad array of organizations with expertise.

Happily, I think there are larger, cultural currents that may break this logjam. Some of these stem from technology, which is driving more interactivity and transparency and democratizing what were once closed institutions to allow more meaningful participation for “real people.” These changes are also upending traditional hierarchical management structures, which rests on the premise that rank is power, to more collaborative and fluid systems based on ecosystem thinking. Clearly, we’re already seeing these trends disrupting entire fields such as journalism, education, and politics.

Young people in particular, “get it.” Frustrated by traditional institutions, they’re doing an end run around those organizations and creating new models of social innovation and change. They’re becoming social entrepreneurs unencumbered by bureaucracy, launching web-based giving circles where everyone’s a partner, and using social media to generate engagement that goes beyond donations. And they’re demanding more transparency from traditional “closed-door” institutions, including big foundations, which tend to see transparency as putting grant guidelines and allocations on a website. To grantseekers, though, transparency is being as honest as possible about how funders make decisions and on what criteria those are based.

Institutional philanthropy is one of those domains that, admittedly, is still dragging its feet in moving into this new universe. Risk averse by nature, they have hierarchies of power that are hard to shake. That’s why some of the most innovative developments in philanthropy are occurring outside the walls of the big foundations and among smaller entities such as community foundations, a group of which are involving community residents as equal partners in their grantmaking efforts.  That kind of “participatory philanthropy” is also reflected in the rise of giving circles and crowdfunding sites that allow everyone to be a philanthropist.

I’ve had the privilege of working with several foundations who’ve been willing to jump into the abyss and open their doors in ways that previously would be sacrosanct. One national funder, for example, convened all 80 of their grantees in face-to-face discussions with a facilitator (and no foundation staff in the room) to give their unvarnished feedback about the funder’s somewhat unhelpful application process and the way in which they communicated with nonprofits. What made this process distinctive is that, according to a recent study by the Grants Managers Network (Project Streamline), only 9% of foundations have these kind of in-person conversations. Only 50% of funders even want to solicit grantee/seeker feedback, and they usually do so through surveys. But this foundation went even further: It used the “data” from those gatherings to completely revamp not only its application process but the internal funding decisionmaking systems. And it’s checking in with grantees annually.

I also worked with the Case Foundation several years ago to develop one of the first national “open source” funding initiatives that went beyond asking the public to vote on the recipients to involving “real people” in every step of the process — including determining the grantmaking criteria, reviewing all proposal applications, and deciding on the winners. What made this truly transparent was that the experts/funders didn’t decide the final list of potential grantees and then ask the public to vote on them; that, instead, emerged from a bottom-up process that didn’t involve the foundation at all.

This kind of transparency is the bedrock on which new, more democratic forms of philanthropy are being built. And it’s going to require that funders of all kinds be open to exploring new ways to develop stronger partnerships with “real people” on the ground. That will mean going beyond interviewing those people for input that funders then use to make the decisions themselves. Instead, it will require more meaningful involvement of people in communities in decisions about where funds are allocated, why, and how. Asking people to vote on grant-award dollars is one way; another might be recruiting people in communities to help advise foundations in developing their grant criteria, application process, and overall programs. Foundations can also ask the public to engage in their priority-setting when they do their periodic assessments, hold occasional meetings for the public, and bring in practitioners and outsiders to brief foundation staff members on a regular basis.

Admittedly, this kind of participatory philanthropy won’t be easy to embrace for institutions that have historically been shrouded in secrecy. But it could make philanthropy more responsive, authentic, and respectful to the public it purports to serve.

Nell: One of the topics you recently took on was Bill Shore’s (and others’) argument that nonprofits need to have bolder goals. You argued that “wicked problems” require a much more complex and messy approach. To take that point even further, given the ongoing increase in wealth inequality is there a point at which the system is so broken that no intervention by the social sector will really make a difference?

Cindy: I think there may be some assumptions in your question that need more clarification. First, there’s a link made here between burgeoning income inequality and the “system.” Which system, though? Government-subsidized social programs? The political process that determines who receives that support and how much? An economic system that, some argue, will always have built into it a level of income stratification? An educational system in which those with the social and financial capital to access the “best” schools are able to access better jobs? All of these factors contribute to income inequality, which, yes, results in an extremely complex and messy issue. In turn, any attempt to “solve” (you’ll note in our article, we say “resolve” instead) these problems will be fraught with nuanced minefields.

Another interesting thing in your question is the use of the word “intervention” as singular. Wicked problems by their very nature don’t usually respond to one “best practice” or even a set of discrete interventions. As one of my co-authors, Katya Fels Smyth, notes wicked problems don’t come from somewhere; they come from somewheres. And so do the solutions, which means that all sectors and domains need to be involved.

That doesn’t mean the social sector should just give up. We always need to continue to strive toward ensuring equality, equity and opportunity—the cornerstones of our democracy. It’s become increasingly clear, however, that no one sector or set of players can do it alone. So, perhaps rather than ask what the social sector can do, why not ask whether it’s time to start seeing all sectors as equally important in addressing these kinds of thorny issues?

But I’d raise yet another, bigger question: Is there even a need to have such a bright line separating the social sector from others? What, exactly, is the social sector? If, like the government, it shut down tomorrow, what would close? Today, like it or not, what used to be a clear delineation among the various sectors has become more of a membrane, with a lot of overlap and interflow.

I think what’s increasingly needed is a balance between preserving the values and mission of nonprofits while moving toward different ways of working with a more diverse set of players to achieve the common good. That will mean recognizing that the social sector may no longer have a corner on the market of all that’s right and good in the world, nor is it the only domain that can carry out charitable, philanthropic and social change efforts. Now, it’s less about which sector is “doing good” and more about making sure that all sectors, all organizations, and all individuals have the opportunity to affect change in meaningful ways in whatever milieu it occurs.

But that doesn’t mean the social sector should just disappear or morph into some kind of fuzzy hybrid. It suggests that the sector needs to step up now and ensure that cross-collaborative, horizontal approaches to “doing good” include the lessons nonprofits have learned about the kinds of skills, strategies and leadership are required to do that effectively and successfully—no matter who’s doing it or in what sector.

That means the social sector needs to move from the kid’s table to one where organizations from all sectors meet as equal partners, all with something important to add to the mix.

And the social sector has a lot to offer. Because of their experience in tackling wicked problems like poverty, violence and discrimination, nonprofits understand that the most successful of these efforts requires cooperation, rather than competition; collaboration, rather than individual effort; and long-term commitment over fast results. Those are the traits that research has shown will be essential to the 21st century.

The key will be figuring out how to parse out the best of what the nonprofit sector epitomizes and balance that with an array of competing approaches to achieve a more balanced and fluid approach.

Photo Credit: Cindy Gibson

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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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7 Comments to Nonprofits Must Leave the Kid’s Table: An Interview with Cindy Gibson

Albert Ruesga
April 24, 2014

Excellent interview. More like this, please.

Nell Edgington
April 24, 2014

Thanks Albert. That’s high praise from the ultimate “naysayer.” I’d love to add you to the interview series, if you’re interested?

Prentice Zinn
April 24, 2014

This post would be a great introduction to a guide on how to sail away from the foggy bottoms of the nonprofit sector.

Cue the movie trailer voiceover:

“Imagine a world where politeness has imprisoned critical thinking…….Escape from Nonprofitlandia!”

Cindy charts many promising directions – among them:

Start with a critique of our own organization. If we are afraid of being punished by our donors if we take this risk, we should return to the kids table immediately for a cookie and a juice box.

Move on to a blistering and hot-headed critique of our own field and its enduring blind spots. Ask ourselves where we stuck (and yes we probably are stuck) and how our organizations perpetuate and subvert the status quo.

Approach the latest bandwagon in this land of good intentions with a map that charts the vast regions of skepticism, the minefields, and the turbulent seas of confirmation bias.

Maybe we can use this map as an offering to broker a more honest conversation with the realms gatekeepers and their resources.

Find our inner pirates and deliberate publicly. The battleground of noisy disruption, creative destruction, and messy conflict is the most fertile ground for growth.

[…] Nell Edgington interviews Cynthia Gibson on how social outcomes can improve with honesty and transparency not only within the social sector but also in collaboration with the private and governing sectors. […]

Cindy G.
April 26, 2014

Thanks, Albert (high praise, indeed). And Prentice, as always, truly trenchant and incisive insights. You really must write more.

Stuart Comstock-Gay
April 27, 2014

Excellent, Cindy. Spot on

Nick Deychakiwsky
April 30, 2014

Cindy,
ditto on Stuart’s assessment! And good questions raised on this issue of boundaries between sectors.

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