Change is certainly happening within the nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it. From efforts to make philanthropy better at addressing inequity, to movement away from the overhead myth (and other myths), we are witnessing important shifts in how we tackle (and fund that tackling of) social challenges.
But I’m hungry for more.
And more could emerge from honest and transparent conversations about what is holding the social change sector back. There are some key hurdles facing the sector, and we have no hope of finding solutions to those challenges unless we start some no holds barred conversations, like:
- What keeps nonprofits from creating more sustainable business models?
Everyone understands that nonprofits are sorely under-resourced and struggle to find sustainable financing for their work. But few are trying to really understand how we change this reality sector-wide. A few funders have commissioned research on the state of money in the sector, but it’s not nearly enough. I would love to see a real, solutions-oriented conversation about a problem that everyone (nonprofit leaders, boards, funders) knows exists.
- Why do we hold nonprofits to a different standard than for-profits?
Because the nonprofit sector was borne out of the charitable impulse, we continue to see it as more holy than and separate from the for-profit sector. Therefore we are uncomfortable with nonprofits being too political, raising too much money, or spending too much on infrastructure. As a stark example, the nonprofits working for reform to our fairly dysfunctional political system have many fewer resources for and many more restrictions on their efforts than the for-profit lobbyists that the nonprofit reformers are fighting.
- Why won’t we treat nonprofits as equal partners in the economy?
Related to this, because the nonprofit sector emerged as a side-note to the business-driven economy, nonprofits have always been viewed as secondary to, and thus less valuable and important than, the private sector. But you simply cannot have one without the other. The nonprofit sector often provides the research and development, worker support, quality of life and other services that fuel the success and profits of the private sector. Without the nonprofit sector there would be less profit and a weaker economy. So we have to recognize the critical (and equal) role that nonprofits play in creating a strong economy. And we have to begin investing equally in the success of those nonprofits.
- Why are nonprofit boards largely ineffective?
Another truism of the nonprofit sector is that boards just don’t work. I have yet to meet a nonprofit leader who doesn’t have at least some frustration with her board and many are resigned to their board’s deep dysfunction. It is extremely difficult to corral a group of volunteers, to be sure, but instead of accepting that challenge as a rule, let’s figure out how to fix it. Perhaps greater standards and regulations, perhaps compensation for their efforts — I don’t know what the right answer is, but let’s analyze the root causes of this inefficiency and change it.
- How do we direct more money to efforts that result in social change?
There is much debate about whether donors want to give based on the results a nonprofit creates. But if the government is going to continue to off-load social interventions to the nonprofit sector, we don’t have the luxury of letting the funders of those nonprofits give solely based on emotion, reciprocity, or duty. You may not believe in “effective altruism” (the idea that philanthropy should flow to the most effective social interventions), but the fact remains that with mounting social problems and a resource-constrained and gridlocked government, a growing burden for addressing social challenges is falling to the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits will only be able to rise to this challenge if the solutions that work have enough resources to actually work. So let’s recognize the tension among increasing social problems, less government involvement, and lack of money and figure out how to fix it.
It’s time for bigger conversations. We have to openly face the challenges standing in the way of social change and figure out a way forward together.
Photo Credit: Paul Thompson
I’m excited to be heading to Pennsylvania next month to speak at the 2016 Nonprofit Day Conference. My keynote address for the conference will be “The Future of the Nonprofit Sector.” I wanted to share an abbreviated version of the speech with you here via the Social Velocity Slideshare library.
In my mind, there are some fundamental shifts happening in the sector that will be important to watch. They include:
- Increasing competition in the space
- A greater demand for results and social change
- An increased use of advocacy to achieve that change
- A move to more “networked” approaches
- Less “starving” nonprofits of their operational needs
- And (of course) a move from fundraising to financing
These are interesting times, and they hold tremendous opportunity, I think, for the social change sector.
In this month’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Dan Cardinali, the new president and CEO of Independent Sector, a national membership organization that brings together nonprofits, foundations, and corporations to advance the common good.
Prior to leading Independent Sector, Dan was the president of Communities In Schools, the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization, with operations in 26 states and the District of Columbia. While there he led efforts to develop and advance an evidence-based model of integrated student service provision and launched a national growth strategy to increase the organization’s impact on improving public education. He is a 2007 Annie E. Casey Children and Families Fellow, serves as a trustee for America’s Promise, and is on the board of Child Trends. In May 2011 he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. He is also a member of the Leap Ambassador Community of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders.
You can read interviews with other social change leaders in the Social Velocity interview series here.
Nell: You have just become the new head of Independent Sector (IS). In a diverse and growing nonprofit sector that includes many ecosystem organizations like Independent Sector, what do you think the value proposition is for IS? What is the unique role that IS can and should be playing?
Dan: We were founded by John Gardner who was of the sector and believed deeply in the importance of the sector. It was distinct from government and the for-profit sector and uniquely positioned to support the American project. It played a unique and critical role to sustain American democracy and was also a source of profound community co-creation, rising up to provide really good solutions where there were problems and innovating to help communities evolve and grow, and supporting culture and defending the environment. At a time when civil society is shrinking around the world, the independent sector has an even more important role to play.
As for our capital I, capital S organization’s value proposition, we are unique in the country in spanning the sector. We hold the entirety of the grant seeking and grant making organizations and that purview we want to steward very carefully and thoughtfully. We want to be hyper disciplined in a world where there are a number of infrastructure organizations doing really good work, not to duplicate but align and leverage through collaboration. But there are still holes in our estimation in the landscape of what the sector needs. So we are going to remain disciplined in our role as an organization that is sector spanning and national in scope, grounded deeply in community, to determine what we do to add value to the original vision for a more robust social sector.
Nell: Independent Sector can potentially play a unique role because it stands at the intersection between nonprofits and those who fund nonprofits. Is there a bigger role for IS to play in bringing those two sides closer together, breaking down the power dynamic and helping more money to flow to effective organizations? If so what does that look like?
Dan: We are playing a role and part of it is modeling that these are two sides of the same coin – grant seekers can’t exist without grant makers and grant makers can’t get along without grant seekers. It would be naïve to pretend that those with financial resources don’t have an advantage, yet I equally think in the social sector that grant seekers at times abdicate the power that comes with knowing what they know to be effective and owning that. The opportunity exists to partner with grant makers, not just in the transactional sense, but in the co-creation of solutions to ensure that culture flourishes and that the environment is protected and flourishes, and that problems are solved.
In the Threads conversations IS convened with more than 80 partners across the U.S., concerns about the power dynamic were voiced at every stop. In response, IS and member organizations and experts are cooperating to model the best strategies for working together. We need to refocus the relationship on bringing the needed human, financial, and intellectual resources to bear, calling all people of good will to a higher purpose, rather than organizational sustainability.
Nell: Recently 22 nonprofit infrastructure organizations (like GuideStar, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, etc.) wrote a public letter urging foundations to invest more in infrastructure organizations. Independent Sector was not one of the 22 organizations, but what are your thoughts on their argument and how does, or should, Independent Sector fit in?
Dan: What was encouraging about that letter from very reputable organizations is that it opened up a conversation. The philanthropic community has a role, an obligation, to support effective infrastructure organizations, and we have a responsibility to be effective. But IS will not be in a position to request that support without a discussion of what needs doing, how well we all are doing it, and how can we better leverage each other’s work. I am passionate about this topic, and I appreciate that this letter advanced the conversation. I expect IS will partner closely in the future conversations.
Nell: You come to IS after many years at the helm of Communities In Schools, which moved during your tenure to a very evidence-based approach. Do you see IS moving itself and/or helping the sector as a whole to move toward a more evidenced-based approach?
Dan: What we did at CIS was to create a virtuous circle between our programs and practice and our data and research to continually generate insights, make course corrections as needed, and build on success. This is how we roll. IS has been applying this approach for a long time. In the Threads conversations, we engaged practitioners using a credible analytic process. We listened to them, without presupposing what they would say, and we applied social science to produce a document, the Threads report. We then co-created a strategic framework that engages members and develops our partnership, just as we do with the IS conference coming up in November.
So the evidence-based approach is alive and well. Going forward we can look for ways to accelerate its use across the organization, through a thoughtful integration of technology and 21st century methods of engagement.
Photo Credit: Independent Sector
As much as we might like to deny it, nonprofits exist in a market economy, which means that nonprofits, like everything else, must compete for customers and resources. Therefore it is critical that you understand where your nonprofit fits in the market.
While a business has one customer, a nonprofit has at least two distinct customer groups:
- Those who benefit from a nonprofit’s work (clients), and
- Those who fund that work (donors, government contractors, etc).
So it is absolutely critical that nonprofit leaders understand what unique value their work brings to these customers. This can be done through a Marketplace Map, which is one of the first exercises (along with a Theory of Change) that I help nonprofit leaders create during a strategic planning process.
A nonprofit organization is best positioned to create social change in a sustainable way when their core competencies (what the organization does better than anyone else) intersects with a community need (or set of social problems) apart from their competitors or collaborators, like this:
But don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that a nonprofit shouldn’t collaborate.
On the contrary, nonprofit leaders must forge strategic alliances that help move the social change they envision forward. However, when they create those alliances, they must be crystal clear about what their organization brings to the table, versus what a potential ally brings to the table. Thus, a marketplace mapping exercise is absolutely critical to charting a way forward.
In order to create their marketplace map, a nonprofit’s board and staff must answer these three key questions:
- Core Competencies: What superior assets (expertise, relationships, etc.) do we possess as an organization that are not easily replicable?
- Community Needs: What community needs/social problems are we attempting to address?
- Competitors/Collaborators: What other entities are working on some/all of those same problems?
The social change sector has become increasingly competitive in recent years. Now more than ever, nonprofits need to understand this external marketplace of competitors/collaborators against their own core competencies in order to understand the unique value that their nonprofit can contribute.
From this marketplace mapping exercise, some key strategic questions will emerge for the nonprofit, such as:
- Where do our core competencies and activities end, and where do others’ begin?
- Is our nonprofit better positioned than other entities to conduct all of the activities (from our Theory of Change) that we currently do? Should some activities be left to those who do it better?
- Are there core competencies that we must develop in order to better address the community needs we’ve identified?
- Are there collaborators/competitors that we should be more strategic about aligning with?
Creating a Marketplace Map, much like creating a Theory of Change, is an incredibly useful exercise that gets your board and staff thinking in bigger, more strategic ways about your work. And those more strategic conversations can help lead to a more effective and sustainable path forward.
If you want to learn more about how I work with clients to develop their strategic plan, download the Strategic Plan benefit sheet.
I’m a little late on my 10 great reads list this month because the GEO conference kept me busy, but there was lots going on in April. From the most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, to what history can tell us about new philanthropy and combatting xenophobia, to how nonprofits create economic value, to Millennials and social change, to state lawmakers attacking nonprofits, it was not a slow month.
Below are my 10 favorite reads from the month of April.
- If you read only one thing on this list, let it be Ruth McCambridge’s fascinating interview with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. He argues that a nonprofit (or benefit corporation) business model is far better at creating value than a corporate model that operates under a “scorched earth policy.” He argues that corporations transfer value only to their shareholders, instead of the economy as a whole. As he puts it:
“Unlike the for-profit sector, the nonprofit company can’t sell itself, and it doesn’t have shares that go up in value…the way you make money is not by making your share price more valuable and then selling those to other people…the investment that you put in the company stays in the company. You can’t extract that when you leave. So, it’s much more like a family business, and if you look at the data, family businesses do better than shareholder-owned businesses in pretty much every single metric, and they last a whole lot longer. You’re building a company not because you want to take value out of it and then use that money to bequeath an inheritance to your grandchildren, but rather you’re building a company that you hope will still be around when your grandchildren need a job, to circulate wealth when you die. That’s why I’m trying to convince Internet startups to be benefit corporations, multipurpose corporations, or best of all, nonprofits.”
- And if you only have time to read two things on this list, let the second thing be Phil Buchanan’s essay on the five most pressing issues facing foundation leaders, “Big Issues, Many Questions.” A thought-provoking read.
- Pew Research provides a cool interactive graphic of the ebbs and flows of political polarization over the last 20+ years.
- While we are talking about change over time, I have always thought there are great parallels to be drawn between the philanthropists born of today’s digital age and the Gilded Age philanthropists. Nellie Bowles writing in The Guardian seems to agree in her piece about the “Digital Gilded Age.”
- And speaking of the history of philanthropy, Alfred Perkins, writing on the HistPhil blog, sees parallels between our current xenophobic political environment and the anti-Japanese sentiment in World War Two. But back then Rockefeller Foundation philanthropist Edwin Embree fought it. And perhaps there is a lesson there for philanthropy today: “By moving boldly beyond the customary boundaries of organized philanthropy, Embree was able to challenge deeply-held prejudices, demand justice for a vulnerable minority, and extend the impact of the monies he disbursed. This pioneer of his profession would not have voiced the idea, but implicit in his words and actions is the notion that foundation executives might on occasion serve as the nation’s conscience. In these less stringent times, his example might provide useful lessons for his contemporary successors—to the benefit of the philanthropic enterprise, and the nation as a whole.”
- So what will the future of social change be? All eyes are on Millennials, from how they turn out to vote, to how they donate, to what they think of capitalism, to how they find housing.
- A recent conference focusing on “maintainers” rather than the overly popular “innovators” aimed to uncover how critical the role of those maintaining the world in which we live are. As one of the conference organizers, Lee Vinsel (assistant professor of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology) put it, “The vast majority of technologies that surround us and underpin our lives are not innovations. And the vast majority of labor in our culture is not focused on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.”
- Nonprofits have been under fire lately by state lawmakers who are trying to make it even harder for nonprofits to do their work. Tim Delaney from the National Council of Nonprofits provides an overview on what’s happening and what we can do about it. And Erin Bradrick delves into a proposed California bill that didn’t make it out of committee but sets a dangerous precedent on legislating nonprofit overhead rate disclosure in fundraising.
- Particularly during an election cycle, the struggle of the modern news media becomes more evident. The Knight Foundation released a troubling report that the news media has grown less able to defend their First Amendment rights in court. And French economist Julia Cage argues in her new book that the news media should embrace a nonprofit business model in order to reflect better its social role of bolstering our democracy.
- Hanh Le from Exponent Philanthropy and Rusty Stahl from Talent Philanthropy make a very convincing case about why funders should invest in nonprofit talent. Let’s hope this helps turn the tide.
Photo Credit: Stepan Lianozyan via Wikimedia Commons
March was a whirlwind in the world of social change. From successful nonprofit advocacy efforts, to new ways to measure fundraising effectiveness, to finding inspiration in small American cities, to a disconnect between civic engagement funders and activists, to new technology to serve the homeless, and a lot more in between, there was much to read.
Below are the top 10 things that caught my eye in the world of social change in March. If you want to see the longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads go here.
- SeaChange Capital Partners put out a stunning report about the depressing state of financial risk management in health and human services nonprofits in New York, but their insights could really be applied sector-wide. As the report cautions: “Trustees must strive to maximize the good that their organization does while managing its risks. Balancing these can be challenging because of the passion they feel for the organization and its mission. Nonprofits lack the indicators of organizational health that reach the directors of for-profit businesses, such as stock prices or credit spreads…In this context, nonprofit trustees in leadership positions must ensure that well thought through risk management processes are in place. In a challenging operating environment, the status quo is no longer acceptable.”
- Perhaps help is on the way. A fascinating conversation happened between the head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, Antony Bugg-Levine and Fred Ali, head of the Weingart Foundation and champion of the movement to cover full costs and give nonprofits unrestricted flexible funding. Ali is a huge proponent of investing in nonprofit capacity, as he describes: “The incessant [funder] focus on restricted programmatic grants has come at a huge cost to our sector. When we were considering a shift to unrestricted grants, we took a look back and found that many times the organizations we were supporting were not producing the outcomes we were looking for because they didn’t have the ability to invest in the kind of infrastructure that is necessary to produce those outcomes. So when I hear foundations object to our approach, I have to ask, ‘What are you trying to accomplish? Does your grantmaking approach help or hinder the development of capacity and sustainability?’ It is pretty clear that we have a lot of nonprofit organizations that are doing incredible work, being asked to do even more work, and they are not getting the kinds of support they need to that work effectively.” Yep.
- Pew Research is really knocking it out of the park lately. Every day they come out with fascinating data slices that are relevant and topical. Like their infographic on the 10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world, which blew my mind. And if you want to dig into data just on the nonprofit sector, check out this in-depth report from The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which The Nonprofit Quarterly calls “required reading for leaders and board members of nonprofits and philanthropy.”
- On Monday, the governors of both California and New York signed legislation raising the minimum wage in their states to $15 per hour. Apparently we have the advocacy efforts of nonprofits to thank for this social change.
- But economics professor Mark Hendrickson doesn’t see a lot of value in the nonprofit sector. If you feel like getting justifiably incensed, take a look at his eye-popping read in Forbes where he is responding to what he calls the “turf war” between philanthropy and capitalism. Hendrickson provides many stunning quotes about the nonprofit sector, including this whopper: “Many non-profits do good work (albeit without the efficiencies imposed by the profit-loss calculus). However, they have no moral standing to criticize or condemn those who create the wealth that the non-profits spend. Non-profits essentially are professional mendicants trying to do good with other people’s money. It’s time for the non-profits to abandon their petty turf war and to muster enough grace at least to keep silent if they can’t bring themselves to express gratitude for the dominant, indispensable role of the profit-makers in advancing human welfare.” Wow.
- So now that you’re mad, let writer James Fallows inspire you. He and his wife Deb have been on a three-year journey across the country visiting small cities to understand what contributes to their cultural and economic resilience. What they found is that despite political dysfunction at the national level, there is some very inspiring progress happening at the local level: from urban renewal, to bipartisan compromise, to educational reform, to state-of-the-art job training and much more. As Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and quoted in Fallows piece put it: “In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”
- And speaking of innovation, some nonprofits have developed apps to better serve the homeless, to varying degrees of success.
- Writing about civic engagement in The Nonprofit Quarterly Austin Belali bemoans the disconnect between those who are leading a new surge in civic movements (like Black Lives Matter) and the philanthropists funding civic engagement efforts, noting: “While the leaders of what could be described as a twenty-first-century movement for inclusive democracy are largely women and people of color, civic engagement philanthropy and the organizational leadership it supports is stubbornly the opposite.” And looking at a specific kind of civic engagement (voter turnout among young people), Abby Kiesa and Peter Levine might agree when they argue in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “We must ask whether society supports youth engagement, and, if it does, how that support can be made equal for all youth, regardless of education, race, and income. We believe that encouraging youth to engage and to contribute their skills and values can help improve the political culture, but major institutions—educational, governmental, political, and civic—must actually want that to happen.”
- Adding to what has been a scarce (but hopefully growing) body of research on fundraising effectiveness, The Bridgespan Group released a new study about calculating the fundraising effectiveness of each affiliate within a national nonprofit network (like Big Brothers Big Sisters or the YMCA). They created a calculation they call “share of wallet,” which they define as “current fundraising performance compared to fundraising potential as gauged by the pool of donor dollars you draw from.” This fairly simple calculation of how much each site raises vs. what is possible to be raised can help a national nonprofit uncover which sites are more successful and why, and then hopefully help lower performing sites raise more.
- And finally, social media maven Beth Kanter urges us all to take a digital detox day. Sounds fantastic…how about a week instead?
Photo Credit: David McSpadden
February focused (at least in my mind) on innovations in philanthropy. A new growth capital fund for nonprofits, radical philanthropists, trends in charitable giving, and philanthropy’s role in creating the future. Add to that a bold move by a nonprofit to wrest a lucrative city recycling contract from a for-profit company, research on Millennials’ hopes for the future, and a call for presidential candidates to take a lesson from history. It was a great month.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of nonprofits, philanthropy and social change for the month of February. And if you want a longer list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.
You can also see past months’ lists of 10 Great reads here.
- There was a really exciting development in philanthropic support of nonprofit capacity in February. Ten donors led by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation joined together to form Blue Meridian Partners, which will award $1 billion worth of unrestricted, performance-based grants, via 5 to 10-year investments of up to $200 million per nonprofit. According to Edna McConnell Clark Foundation president Nancy Roob, this venture is a new way to invest in high-performing nonprofits, because as she puts it: “Without large, long-term investments of growth capital for organizations with proven results, we’ll continue to salve but not solve our big social challenges.” Yep.
- And speaking of innovations in philanthropy, Inside Philanthropy provides a really interesting profile of philanthropist Farhad Ebrahimi and his Chorus Foundation, which although a relatively small foundation is taking an unusual approach to environmental giving by using a spend-down plan, providing long-term general support grants, and practicing mission investing.
- In analyzing Blackbaud’s 2015 Charitable Giving Report and comparing it to other available data both in the US and Canada, Amy Butcher of The Nonprofit Quarterly finds some interesting insights about how philanthropy is evolving.
- But perhaps it isn’t evolving quickly enough. Minnesota Council on Foundations President Trista Harris recently attended the Abundance 360 Summit about the technology of the future and was disappointed at the lack of a philanthropy presence. As she puts it, “Change in the world and our communities is happening at a breathtaking rate, driven by access to infinite information and exponential increases in computer processing speeds. This accelerating rate of change makes the challenging work of doing good even more difficult. Foundations are trying to make the world a better place, but we are often using yesterday’s information to do so. What if we could predict the future and prepare for the realities that will soon impact our communities? I believe it is our responsibility, as philanthropic leaders, to learn the skills necessary to understand and create the future.”
- Pew Research does an excellent job of unearthing data that relates to the issues of the day. In February I was especially interested in their report that while Millennials are less confident than Gen X or Baby Boomers about America’s future, so were their parents and grandparents when they were young.
- And while we are on the topic of history…Every once in awhile New York Times columnist David Brooks really strikes a chord. In February he used his column to pen a letter to several of the remaining presidential candidates encouraging them to use a “Roosevelt Approach,” as Brooks describes: “Many Americans feel like they are the victims of a slow-moving natural disaster…it’s a natural disaster caused by structural forces — globalization, technological change, the dissolution of the family, racism. A great nation doesn’t divide in times of natural disaster. It doesn’t choose leaders who angrily tear it apart. Instead, it chooses leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower…they were…able to set an emotional tone that brought people together and changed the nature of Americans’ relationships with one another. During their presidencies, the bonds of solidarity grew stronger and the country more formidable. They were able to cultivate a deep sense of unity, responsibility and sacrifice.”
- Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Daniela Papi-Thornton, deputy director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, is quite critical of what she calls, “Heropreneurship,” when social entrepreneurs who have little experience or training are generously funded to solve complex social problems. According to her: “Unfortunately, all too often, the people who get the funding to try their hand at solving global challenges haven’t lived those problems themselves….We’re wasting limited resources on shallow solutions to complex problems, and telling our students it’s OK to go out and use someone else’s time and backyard as a learning ground, without first requiring that they earn the right to take leadership on solving a problem they don’t yet understand.”
- Nonprofit Tech for Good offers a nice list of 36 apps and online tools for nonprofits.
- In an interesting decision, the Minneapolis city council voted to award the city’s 5-year recycling contract to a nonprofit, instead of the for-profit that manages recycling for most of the country. Writing in The Nonprofit Quarterly, James Araci sees an exciting trend: “It’s a smart move for nonprofits to shift perceptions of America’s waste from a commodity to be sold to countries like China to an engine of local job creation and environmental benefits.”
- And finally, head of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, Kate Barr takes aim at the nonprofit overhead myth by encouraging nonprofit leaders to change their own language and thinking: “If we in the nonprofit sector want to bust the overhead myth and bring attention to the things that really matter, then it’s our responsibility to take the lead by communicating differently and better. In order to take that lead, don’t wait for the question to come in and then argue why the [overhead] ratio isn’t important or meaningful. We have to replace it.” Sing it, Kate!
Photo Credit: jwyg, cropped version of “Work with schools : after a book talk, showing boys gathered…” from New York Public Library
At Monitor Institute, a part of Deloitte Consulting, Anna leads the practice on how to drive large-scale social change through galvanizing networks around a shared agenda. She has led aligned action efforts for organizations such as New Profit, Skoll Foundation and Venture Philanthropy Partners. Anna is the author of GATHER: The Art and Science of Effective Convening; ENGAGE: How Funders Can Support and Leverage Networks for Social Impact; and most recently, “Wicked Opportunities” in Business Ecosystems Come of Age.
You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.
Nell: Is the idea of a network entrepreneur new in the world of social change? Or how do you think the use of networks is different now than it has been in the past?
Anna: The idea of an individual who works, often tirelessly, to mobilize diverse stakeholders to tackle a tough problem by developing a coordinated plan of attack is not new by any means. Funders and practitioners have been galvanizing networks to address large scale challenges for decades. But the term “network entrepreneur” is new. I heard it recently from two practitioners, David Sawyer and David Ehrlichman from Converge, who are working with network leaders in California.
Over the years we’ve used several terms to describe this type of person: network weaver, network CEO, system leader, tri-sector athlete, Chief Resilience Officer, ecosystem integrator, to name a few. What is changing, though, is the acceptance of why developing the capacity to lead and engage in problem solving through networks is important—as well as an appreciation for what it takes to do so. Increasingly, we’re seeing a shift from the organization as the primary unit of change to the network as a viable means of achieving social impact goals.
Nell: Why do you think nonprofit leaders should embrace the idea of a network entrepreneur? What makes this approach so attractive to social change efforts?
Anna: It’s not just nonprofit leaders who should embrace the idea of using networks to drive systemic change. The tough problems we face as a society have no consideration for sector or issue boundaries—and can’t be solved by leaders from any one sector. Business and government leaders have just as important a role to play in cross-sector social problem solving. And for companies, working through networks is becoming a powerful way to integrate social impact into their core business strategy rather than isolate it within a corporate social responsibility initiative. This is where a lot of exciting activity is happening globally.
We’ve identified five types of networks that create that intersection between social impact and business value—and in which companies are playing critical roles. There are those networks which can directly benefit a company’s core business and are designed for addressing strategic goals such as stewarding natural resources, enabling market-based solutions and raising industry standards. Then there are networks that tend to more indirectly benefit a company’s core business; and these focus on aligning solutions within local communities and mobilizing action around large-scale solutions. We are seeing bold cross-sector experiments in many arenas–where social impact networks are successfully engaging the private sector to tackle a range of challenges while also meeting specific business needs, such as: effectively stewarding the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains in California; redesigning the global seafood supply chain to preserve fisheries; surfacing new market-based solutions for building a healthy and sustainable food system worldwide; improving access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries; and enabling communities to create local education ecosystems to support children and youth from cradle to career.
I don’t want to put an unrealistic sheen on the power of networks to solve all problems. Working in this way is one of many important tools in our collective problem-solving toolkit. What networks do, however, is allow us to pursue solutions that would be harder to attain in other ways. A network approach aligns the actions of a diverse set of stakeholders to tackle a larger piece of a problem than by working in isolation; diversifies risk and spreads bets across many experiments; enables innovation by building a platform where different voices can come to the table to shape new solutions; and ultimately, helps build a resilient problem-solving ecosystem where a dense web of relationships provides the resilience necessary to adapt to new challenges and opportunities as they arise. These qualities are harder to get through one-to-one partnerships or from the efforts of a single organization. A network builds a platform that can launch a portfolio of interventions and simultaneously pull many levers for change. That’s what makes them attractive for social change efforts.
Nell: Networks are often organic and can become ineffective if they are overtaken by a single person or entity, yet they also require leadership to be successful. How does a network balance the need for leadership with the need for organic growth?
Anna: Walking the right “leadership line” is certainly critical in a network context; but that’s not to say that networks don’t need focused and intentional leadership. Network leadership requires a different mindset than operating in a traditional organization. It’s more loosely controlled and emergent than top-down and planned. Decision making is shared rather than concentrated in one person. Insights come from the collective rather than from individual “experts.” Power and commitment come from trust among many not from mandates from the C-suite.
In this way, leadership is just one of the many attributes to factor into a network’s design. Through our own work with networks, we’ve identified eight particularly common ways that they can vary to suit different circumstances—and enable or hinder growth. Besides the important leadership attribute, network entrepreneurs need to consider others such as a network’s purpose, alignment, governance, sector, orientation, size and geography.
Our Axes of Collaboration (to the left) is a useful tool for any network entrepreneur as they think about the foundational DNA of a network—and how to design one to best match the type of problem it’s meant to tackle.
For instance, if you’re a network like REAMP, now with over 165 participating organizations focused on the ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2050 across the Midwest, you won’t want to design a network that “lives” more on the left side of these axes: one with distributed leadership, informal governance, that’s more learning than action oriented, and has minimal alignment. You’ll never hit that goal with that kind of design. Leadership is a critical component of any network; but so are the other factors that will either help support or inhibit a network’s growth. Considering all these dimensions—and then designing appropriately—is essential.
Nell: When you look at some of the social movements active today — like Black Lives Matter and the protests on college campuses — how does your research on networks help inform your understanding of whether or how successful you think those efforts will be?
Anna: I won’t try to predict the future of these movements. But through our work helping design and launch networks, we know that we need to apply a different frame to evaluate a network’s success. We’ve been influenced by the work of Peter Plastrik and Madeline Taylor who are pushing the field’s thinking around how we measure the impact of a network. For a network, it’s important to understand—and to be able to measure—not just the effects, what a network achieves in terms of outcomes, but also to measure its operations, its “internal health” and how it runs.
We segment network effects into three areas:
- Beneficiary effects (the outcomes and impacts on the people a group aims to serve),
- Idea dissemination (the spread and adoption of language, concepts or practices a network supports) and
- Field building (changes we’ve promoted in the development of the fields in which we work).
We then segment network operations into its structure and health and measure things such as the network’s membership, connectivity, activities, resources, infrastructure and value proposition. Many years ago we developed a diagnostic tool to evaluate a network’s effectiveness. Many of the elements to consider may be highly relevant to those working more directly with movements.
Ultimately, a network’s—or movement’s—success depends on a variety of factors. And getting smart about how to track them in order to refine, recalibrate or redirect the network’s strategy is what matters. Unfortunately, there’s not one solitary variable to evaluate the multi-dimensional nature of a network that’s built to tackle deeply systemic and complex challenges. I wish it were that simple, but it’s not.
Photo Credit: Monitor Institute