Bill 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.
There is an increasing drumbeat in the world of social change that nonprofits must start measuring their work. Thought leaders like Mario Morino with Leap of Reason, Bill Shore’s recent blog post “What Does Success Look Like?” and David Henderson’s (recently interviewed on the Social Velocity blog here) ongoing Full Contact Philanthropy blog, to name a few, are adding to the chorus.
The argument among thought leaders, funders, raters and others in the social change sector is increasingly that nonprofits MUST:
- Figure out what they exist to do (a theory of change)
- Create a disciplined operational model for creating that change
- Measure whether the change is actually happening
- Articulate that change in order to garner more support
But all of this is fairly new to the nonprofit sector and not yet widely practiced (by a long shot). In fact, some of these ideas are still quite controversial. Let’s take #2 for example, “Creating a disciplined operational model.” David Henderson analyzes this well in his post last week. Although David gets a little bogged down in jargon, his idea is a really great, but probably touchy, one.
He argues that nonprofits must become more discerning and disciplined about who they provide service to. Because nonprofits have limited resources, they cannot serve everyone. Therefore instead of serving people on a first come first served basis (which is the norm), they should instead serve those who they can best help. In other words, they should determine and then serve those populations of people who will benefit the most from their intervention:
In the case of the youth workforce development program, while all low-income youth would qualify for services, we might have a preference for placing people into the program who are likely to complete the internship. In this case, one could use historical data to fit a predictive model that provides some insight into what characteristics made an individual more or less likely to have completed the program in the past. Under this framework, social welfare maximization would involve not only placing people into the program, but maximizing the number of people in the program who complete the internship.
The idea is that instead of filling up the program with any youth who have a need, the nonprofit would create more social change by thoughtfully selecting types of children on whom they could have the most impact.
To the nonprofit world, which is very much focused on trying to help as many people as possible, this is a potentially radical idea. But if smartly employed, nonprofits could actually provide more social change through this disciplined method. And in an increasingly resource-constrained environment, it makes sense for nonprofits to want to get the highest return on their program resources.
In order to take this approach, however, nonprofits must have a theory of change. You cannot create social change if you don’t:
- Know what you want that change to be, and
- Measure whether that change is happening
In an increasingly competitive marketplace, it is getting harder and harder for nonprofits to attract support. The harsh reality is that those nonprofits that develop a smart theory of change, measure whether that change is happening, and then articulate the change to supporters will increasingly be the ones that survive. Not to mention that they will be the ones that actually create social change.
Photo Credit: Colin Smith
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