We live in an age of an (often sickening) glut of information. Sometimes just thinking about Twitter, Facebook, Google, or BuzzFeed makes me really tired. And I love technology and media. But they can be absolutely overwhelming.
I recently finished Nate Silver’s phenomenal book, The Signal and the Noise, in which he offers a new way to approach our age of information overload. Silver’s book is about how we can better predict things like weather, economic fluctuations, and climate change by finding the right “signal” amidst the exponentially expanding body of data, or “noise.”
Silver describes how our current Internet age is very similar to life after the invention of the printing press, when books were suddenly cheap and everywhere. The result of this sudden enormous increase in the availability of information was, unfortunately, 200 years of holy war. Although Silver doesn’t believe we’re headed for another 200 year war, he argues that we must understand the parallels and the dangers of too much information. As Silver puts it:
We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime.
In other words, we need to figure out how to organize the firehose of information that faces us everyday. I don’t know exactly how to go about that, but for my own sanity I have developed a few strategies.
First is taking regular time away from all of the information just to process and think alone, without screens, books, or chatter. We all must claim our very real need to turn off the noise and look inside for the meaning, the right approach, the way forward.
Second is seeking out the past. I was a history major in college and still love the subject, so my predisposition when I am overwhelmed is to look at how we approached things in the past. There is great peace there. In particular, I love the weekly email from Brain Pickings where writer Maria Popova delves into the works of past writers to help understand our world today. Aside from finding new things to read, it is incredibly comforting to realize the struggles we face today are really not all that new.
And finally, I believe that dissent holds promise for finding shelter from the information glut. One of the things Silver warns against (and we see this everyday) is that in an age of information overload, people tend to shut out things that are at odds with their opinions or experience. Our country’s current deep political divide is an example of this. So we need to break down those walls and surround ourselves with people who make us pause and who make us think. We need to seek out people who share our values, but not necessarily our life experience, education, politics, income level, or opinion on how the world should work.
We don’t have to succumb to the exhausting deluge of information. As Callie Oettinger put it, “The Internet is ours to shape. We can’t let the howling spread.”
Photo Credit: Roy Miller
Recent studies of nonprofit donors have found that the majority aren’t interested in impact. But what if that current reality isn’t also future reality but rather an opportunity? What if just as Apple created a market for smartphones where one didn’t exist, we could create a market for social change funding where one currently doesn’t exist?
As I mentioned in my 10 Great Reads list for January, data wonk Caroline Fiennes reviewed recent studies on donor behavior and found that donors don’t increase their donations when shown nonprofit performance data. And Caroline is not alone, others have also argued that donors just don’t care about performance.
This could be depressing because if donors aren’t interested in the effectiveness of a nonprofit they won’t shift their money to the nonprofits more effective at creating social change. In other words, we have no hope of solving social problems if we can’t channel money to those entities that are actually solving those problems.
Apple is probably the most obvious example of a market maker, creating consumer demand where there was none. They have continually created innovative products for swooning consumers who previously had no idea they needed those products. Before creating the first iPhone prototype in 2006 Steve Jobs didn’t survey consumers to ask if they wanted their phone to surf the web, send emails, and take pictures. A majority of consumers would probably have said no. Rather, Apple saw a need that consumers didn’t yet know they had (what marketers call a “latent need”) and built a huge consumer base from scratch.
They were market makers, as Fred Vogelstein described in the New York Times Magazine:
Apple’s innovations have set off an entire rethinking of how humans interact with machines. It’s not simply that we use our fingers now instead of a mouse. Smartphones, in particular, have become extensions of our brains…Its technology is changing the way we learn in school, the way doctors treat patients, the way we travel and explore. Entertainment and media are accessed and experienced in entirely new ways.
Jobs and his team created a completely different marketplace, set of cultural norms, and way of interacting with the world around us.
In the world of social change we need a completely different marketplace, set of cultural norms, and way of channeling money. So we need to create the market.
We need to show funders that the current flow of money to social change efforts is not sufficient or efficient. If we truly want solutions to our social challenges, we must create an effective financial market for those solutions.
I believe that funders can be inspired to change their behavior. They have a latent desire to see their dollars actually achieve something. They have been so used to the lowest common denominator of giving based solely on reciprocity or emotion, but that can change.
As Harvard Business Review blogger Umair Haque explains, Apple’s success comes from their ability to rise above the common denominator and create something people love and truly (though they may not yet know it) want:
Most companies…don’t care about what they make. They merely care about what they sell. And so they…offer the people they call consumers the lowest common denominator designed by focus-group led committees at the everyday low price in malls full of stores full of shelves full of…other lowest common denominators designed by committee at the everyday low price. Nobody ever loved anybody who was merely trying to sell them something. Especially not the lowest common denominator. People love people—and organizations—that make their lives better. Even when those things are as simple as phones.
The data and the focus groups may say that donors don’t want impact. Yet. So its up to us to create the market. It is up to us to get donors to love the impact that makes clients’ lives, donors’ lives, and ultimately our communities better. It’s up to us to create demand for funding real social change.
Photo Credit: Matthew Yohe
January was a busy month. From more trends and predictions for the new year, to new ways of thinking about scale, to nonprofit performance measures and whether donors really care about them, to a return to farming, and a new giving app, there was lots to read in the world of social change.
You can see past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.
- Since it was the first month of a new year, there were several prediction posts for the nonprofit sector. Rich Cohen’s predictions are very thoughtful, including declining slacktivism, an IRS crisis, continuing financial collapse of local governments and much more. The National Council of Nonprofits pulled together their list of 2015 trends facing the sector. And Kivi Leroux Miller created this nice infographic summarizing her 2015 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report.
- Because a “social capital chasm” exists in the nonprofit sector it may not be possible for nonprofits to truly achieve organizational scale says Alice Gugelev and Andrew Stern writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. They urge social change leaders to look at scaling impact instead of organization. As they put it, “It’s time for nonprofit leaders to ask a more fundamental question than ‘How do you scale up?’ Instead, we urge them to consider…’What’s your endgame?'”
- Writing on the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Phil Buchanan reminds us that it is not enough to move beyond overhead as a way to evaluate nonprofits: “What we need to focus on, of course, is not just de-emphasizing overhead ratios as a performance metric. We also need improvements in approaches to performance measurement. The reality is that donors often gravitate to overhead ratios when they can’t get their hands around anything else.”
- But nonprofit evaluation wonk Caroline Fiennes might disagree. She takes a look at recent studies on how information about a nonprofit’s performance affects donor giving behavior. She rather depressingly finds that performance data doesn’t improve donations. In her review of three recent studies, Caroline finds “Donors appeared to use evidence of effectiveness as they would a hygiene factor: they seemed to expect all charities to have four-star ratings, and reduced donations when they were disappointed – but never increased them because they were never positively surprised.”
- With elections behind him, President Obama’s January State of the Union address laid out his plans for his last two years in office. But he didn’t once mention the nonprofit sector even though the sector is key to the success of those plans, as Rick Cohen points out.
- The new app, Charity Match that was developed by Intuit and the Gates Foundation, prompts people to make charitable donations based on their spending habits while they do their online banking.
- While the family farm was once a thing of the past some Millennials are returning to farming, wanting “to find a way to live high-quality, sustainable lives, and help others do the same.”
- The Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offers 15 Must-Know Fundraising and Social Media Stats.
- As is their tradition, every year Bill and Melinda Gates release an annual letter about their philanthropy. And every year social change thinkers tear it apart. This year Chris Blattman from The Monkey Cage takes issue with the Gates’ assumption “that a few new technologies can make unprecedented and fundamental changes in poverty in 15 years.”
- And finally, Michel Bachmann and Roshan Paul caution social changemakers to slow down and go deep in order to avoid burning out altogether. “The social entrepreneurship sector in many parts of the world is rife with accelerators…These organizations play an important role—there are good reasons for their existence. However, in this era where everything is accelerating, we’d like to put our hands up for the importance of deceleration. As the poet Tess Gallagher said: ‘You can’t go deep until you slow down.'” Amen!
Photo Credit: Jonathan Cohen
Today I am in Sacramento (it’s a busy travel month) speaking at the Nonprofit Resource Center’s 2015 Conference “Building a Mission Focused Community.” I am honored to share the stage with amazing nonprofit sector visionaries like Jan Masaoka from the California Association of Nonprofits and Blue Avocado, Jeanne Bell from CompassPoint, and Robert Egger from LA Kitchen (and past Social Velocity interviewee and guest blogger).
My topic for today’s conference is “Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader.” Amid growing competition, decreased funding sources, and more and increasingly complex social challenges, nonprofit leaders must reinvent themselves. They must unlock the charity shackles, embrace strategy and impact, use money as a tool, refuse to play nice, and demand real help. We need a new kind of nonprofit leader.
Below is a Slideshare synopsis of my talk today, and it joins the growing library of Social Velocity Slideshare presentations.
Almost two years ago three nonprofit rating organizations launched the Overhead Myth campaign aimed at eradicating “the false conception that financial ratios are the sole indicator of nonprofit performance.” Call me an optimist, but I think it might be working. I see more nonprofit leaders and funders discussing the radical idea that overhead might not be a bad thing. We still have a long way to go, but perhaps there is progress.
The bad news, however, is that the Overhead Myth is only one of many (way too many) destructive nonprofit myths. So in this new year, let’s look at those additional myths that hold the nonprofit sector back.
As we all know, a myth is a story that everyone believes, but is actually not true. Here are the 5 most egregious myths I see in the nonprofit sector:
- Good Nonprofits Don’t Make a Profit
For some reason it is unseemly for a nonprofit to have more money than they immediately need. The best a nonprofit should hope for is to break even, and if they do run a profit, they should not be fundraising. To the contrary, a nonprofit with operating reserves can invest in a more sustainable organization, conduct evaluations to make sure their solution is the best one, recruit a highly competent staff, and weather economic fluctuations. For a donor it is far better to invest in an organization with the people and systems necessary to effectively tackle a social problem than an organization that is barely getting by. The best nonprofits are those that create a financial model that allows them the money mix (revenue, capital, reserves) necessary to make the best decisions and invest where and when they must.
- There Are Too Many Nonprofits
I’m so tired of the refrain (mostly by funders) that there are “too many” nonprofits. Does anyone complain about how many tech startups there are? This myth comes from the fact that the sector is undercapitalized which causes organizations to compete for scarce resources. So let’s fix that problem instead. To be sure, there are times when it makes sense to bring two nonprofits that address similar needs together in order to save costs, but that’s usually the exception not the rule. The process of merging two organizations is itself incredibly time-intensive and costly, and, honestly, rarely do funders invest the amount of resources required to ensure a successful merger. Every nonprofit should regularly assess their Theory of Change and how they fit into the external market place of social problems and competitors working on similar problems. If a nonprofit finds that they are no longer adding unique value to that marketplace, then they should reorganize, merge, or disband, whichever makes most strategic sense.
- Nonprofits, Unlike Businesses, Are Inefficient
This myth takes many forms: “nonprofits are too slow,” “nonprofits should sell more products or services”, “nonprofits should run more like a startup,” and the list goes on. The underlying assumption is that the for-profit world is inherently smarter, more strategic, more nimble and more effective. But the truth is that all three sectors (business, government, and nonprofit) have their stars (like Apple), their screwups (like Lehman Brothers) and the multitude in between. Inefficiency in the nonprofit sector is merely a symptom of a larger problem, which is the persistent lack of adequate capital to fund enough of the right staff, technology, systems, evaluation, marketing required to address the intractable problems nonprofits are trying to solve. Let’s talk about that instead.
- Nonprofits Are Outside the Economy
This is the myth that nonprofits are “nice to have” and make everyone feel good, but are not a critical component of our lives or our economic system. But the fact is that the nonprofit sector employs 10% of the U.S. workforce and accounts for 5% of GDP. And the number of nonprofits grew 25% from 2001-2011, while the number of businesses only grew by 0.5%. As government continues to slough off services to nonprofits, those numbers will only continue to grow. The nonprofit sector is not tangential to the economy, but rather an instrumental part of it.
- Nonprofits Have No Role In Politics
501(c) 3 organizations have long been told to stay out of politics. The myth is that charity is too noble to be mired in the mess of pushing for political change (Robert Egger has written extensively on this). But the fact is that simply providing services is no longer enough to solve the underlying problems. Nonprofits are increasingly recognizing that they can no longer sit by and watch their client load increase while disequilibrium grows. Nonprofits must (and already are) advocate for changes to the ineffective systems that produce the need for their existence.
Being mired in the demoralizing and debilitating cloak of these myths wears the nonprofit sector down. We must follow the Overhead Myth’s example and start uncovering the other myths that hold the sector back. Because the power of a myth is greatly diminished when we openly admit that the myth is only that — a myth.
Photo Credit: We Shall Overcome, Rowland Scherman, National Archives
There was a bit of a dust up in the (social change) Twitterverse yesterday. Ryan Seashore from CodeNow wrote a post on TechCrunch arguing that the majority of nonprofits are “broken,” and should act more like for-profit startups in order to create impact. The post follows a similar line of other arguments over the years (most recently Carrie Rich’s argument that nonprofits should all become social enterprises) that the nonprofit form is so dysfunctional that it should be tossed out. But there is a real danger to this idea of abandoning the nonprofit sector.
Debates like these are crucial not because of the entertainment value (although I do love good drama), but because they force us to uncover and analyze our underlying assumptions. Yesterday’s debate, and others like it, which take the nonprofit sector to task for being inefficient, broken, unbusinesslike, lay bare some false and destructive assumptions about nonprofits and about social change in general.
Ryan sees nonprofits as aging dinosaurs with “too much overhead, too much bureaucracy, and a lack of focus on impact. Everything feels slow.” But for real change to happen you have to integrate the institutions that already exist with the networks, or “startups,” that want change, as I discussed in an earlier post. The two (institutions and networks) must work together. Ryan’s argument that nonprofits need to be more like startups is fundamentally flawed because if everything were a startup, change wouldn’t happen.
To quote David Brooks from a recent The New York Times piece, “Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked…social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs…[but] this is misguided…Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as ‘overhead,’ really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.”
To be sure, in his blog post Ryan outlines some areas where many nonprofits could improve (becoming more focused, continually innovating, diversifying revenue sources, thinking big), but these are best practices that any organization (startup or established institution, for-profit or nonprofit) should embrace. It is simplistic and misguided to think, as Ryan writes, that “the nonprofit world must embrace the nimble ways of successful startups to become more effective, and do better.” I know its not sexy, but real social change is much more complex than startup versus institution.
So let’s move on from this either/or mentality. Effective social change requires institutions AND networks, it requires Millennials AND Boomers, it requires startups AND established organizations, it requires public AND private money (and lots of it), and it requires for-profit and nonprofit solutions. We are wasting our time (and our keystrokes) by creating false dichotomies. Let’s work together toward strategic, sustainable social change.
I love this time of year. Not just because of the approaching space for relaxation, friends and family, and great food, but more importantly because it is a time for reflection. The end of the year offers a natural analytic marker between what was and what is yet to come.
And as is my end of the year tradition on the blog, it’s a time to look ahead to what the coming year might bring for the nonprofit sector. I’ve always said when I create my Trends to Watch lists that I am less clairvoyant and more optimist. I am always hopeful that the nonprofit sector is growing more effective, more sustainable, more able to create lasting social change. That’s the trajectory that (I freely admit) I am predisposed to see.
So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about the nonprofit sector as we head into the new year.
- Growth of the Sharing Economy
The emerging “sharing economy,” where a good or service is shared by many instead of consumed by one and managed largely through the use of social technologies (think AirBNB, Netflix, TaskRabbit and countless others), will have wide implications for the social change sector. The sector that employed “sharing” long before it was cool will need to understand this changing environment and the implications for their work. Nonprofits should figure out how to navigate this growing interest (and increasing for-profit competition) in the realms of community and goodwill. It will be fascinating to watch.
- More Focus on Crowdfunding
One element borne out of the sharing economy is crowdfunding, and there is no doubt that it is everywhere. I have written before about my skepticism. But my hope is that crowdfunding will move away from ALS Ice Bucket Challenge-like hype and become another financing tool that nonprofits can use strategically. We need to get smarter about what crowdfuding is, and what it isn’t. A Kickstarter campaign makes sense for startup and other capital needs, but not for ongoing revenue. And while Giving Days are exciting, I’d like to see more analysis of what’s new money and what is cannibalized money. There is no doubt that crowdfunding is a force to be reckoned with, I just hope we turn it into a useful, strategic tool that contributes to — not detracts from — sustainable social change financing.
- Decreasing Power of the Overhead Myth
The Overhead Myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should spend as little as possible on “overhead” expenses (like infrastructure, fundraising, and administrative costs) was laid bare in 2013 when GuideStar, CharityNavigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance wrote their famous Letter to the Donors of America. This year they wrote a follow up Letter to the Nonprofits of America, arguing that both nonprofit leaders and donors must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate and instead focus on a nonprofit’s outcomes. It’s exciting to see this most detrimental of nonprofit myths beginning to crumble, but there is still much work to be done. Not least of which is helping nonprofits articulate and measure their outcomes so that they have a more effective measure with which to replace the overhead rate.
- Growing Emphasis on High Performance
Which brings me to the growing movement for creating more high performing nonprofits. Over the past several years there has been an emerging effort to move nonprofits toward this outcomes approach to their work. The idea is that if nonprofits can better articulate and measure the social change they seek, more resources, sustainability and ultimately more change will follow. In the coming year, a group of social sector leaders (of which I am a member) will release a framework for what practices constitute a high performing nonprofit. But that is just one example of a growing emphasis in the social change sector on results.
- Greater Investment in Nonprofit Leadership
Nonprofit leaders have long traveled a lonely road with inadequate support and resources. Funders and board members often assume that a leader should go it alone, even while for-profit leaders benefit from on-going coaching, training and development. But that is starting to change. A few savvy foundations have invested in nonprofit leadership, and they are beginning to trumpet the benefits of such investments. As more funders understand why investing in the leaders of the nonprofits they fund makes sense, I am hopeful that nonprofit leadership support will become less of an anomaly. And with stronger, more effective and supported leaders comes — I firmly believe — more social change.
Photo Credit: slorenlaboy
Today I’m focusing on social change books. I know, books are so over. We have become a society that is about fewer and fewer words, or really, fewer and fewer characters. But there is something to be said for spending 200+ pages really diving into a topic, exploring it and letting it change your point of view. Below are my favorite books in the social change realm.
I have reviewed some of these books on the blog, some I have not. Some are really old, others are brand new. And some are not about social change at all, yet I included them because I think they hold value for social changemakers.
Each of these books has helped me see my work and the work of social change in new ways, even if that was far from what the author intended. Perhaps you will think so too.
Here are my favorite social change books:
- The War of Art (my review is here)
- Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity (my review is here)
- Working Hard & Working Well (my review is here)
- Lean In (my review is here)
- Social Media for Social Good (my review is here)
- How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas
- Beyond Fundraising: New Strategies for Nonprofit Innovation and Investment
- Work on Purpose (my review is here)
- Real Change Leaders
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (my review is here)
- The Mesh: Why The Future of Business is Sharing
- The Big Enough Company (my review is here)
- The Networked Nonprofit
- Measuring the Networked Nonprofit
- Social Change Anytime Everywhere
- Good to Great and the Social Sectors
- Making Good (my review is here)
What are your favorite social change books? Please add to the list in the comments below.
Photo Credit: CBS Television
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