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Citizen Schools

A False Dichotomy: Non-profit vs. For-profit Solutions

In a recent blog post, Tony Wang, a brilliant researcher at Lucy Bernholz’s  Blueprint Research & Design, a strategy consulting firm for philanthropy in the Bay Area, makes a thought-provoking, yet ultimately flawed argument about the social impact of nonprofits (which he calls charities) versus social businesses. Tony and I have sparred before on PRIs and mission-related investing, and I had to take up the cause again with his argument that poses a false dichotomy.

Tony’s underlying argument is that a for-profit business model is better able to deliver social impact per dollar than a nonprofit one.  He gives many reasons for this:

  1. Dollars for charity are limited. True the nonprofit sector is undercapitalized, but that is changing, and will continue to change as the public, private and nonprofit sectors continue to converge and the social capital market, for both for-profit and nonprofit social impact organizations, grows.  The mere fact that nonprofits are undercapitalized is not a reason to dismiss nonprofit solutions out of hand.
  2. Charity is often inefficient because of its lack of accountability to the people who are the primary beneficiaries of aid.”  This has been true in the past, but I think it is changing.  An increasing focus on metrics, brought on by the venture philanthropy movement and others, has encouraged nonprofits to track and demonstrate outcomes.  These aren’t perfect by any means and there is much work still to be done, but why not work to encourage better accountability rather than simply say nonprofits are inefficient?
  3. Charity is often harmful and insulting to its recipients.  I agree that Western solutions to third world problems can sometimes be full of hubris, but this is no less true in social businesses than it is in nonprofits.  Read my post on the “missionary” nature of some social business solutions.
  4. Business has a much easier time scaling: “it will be difficult for domestic nonprofits to scale when the federal government is the only viable answer and that international nonprofits will still struggle mightily with the issue.”  Government isn’t the only viable answer.  Some great organizations have been able to scale without government assistance (Teach for America, KIPP, Citizen Schools). And the beauty of nonprofit organizations is that scale doesn’t have to mean just the expansion of a single organization.  Rather, scale can mean the dissemination of a solution that works.  Because nonprofits worry less about competition, they are more likely to want to share best practices, models that work, and allow local adaptations of a solution from another area.

Because of all of this, Tony believes that “a lot of young social entrepreneurs…are starting to realize that business solutions and not charity solutions can be more ideal when it comes to maximizing impact (and philanthropy’s impact would be multiplied if it leveraged its capital to fund social impact businesses with true potential).”

I’m sorry, Tony, but I really disagree with this.  Why does it have to be either, or?  Why is one model inherently better able to create value than another? Rather, I would say that it depends on the problem and what the best solution is.  Yes, there are problems and inefficiencies within the nonprofit sector, but there are also some pretty major problems, and inefficiencies in the for-profit sector (dot-com bust, financial crisis, anyone?).

Rather, we need to take a holistic approach to social impact.  There need to be multiple tools available to social entrepreneurs, whether they be for-profit or nonprofit  (different business models, various financing, etc).  And let’s remember that there are some inherent problems with for-profit social impact models as well.  When a solution requires the appearance of impartiality, a nonprofit model might be more effective.

I think the whole point of the convergence and “resetting,” to quote Lucy Bernholz, that is going on is that the old dichotomies and definitions don’t work anymore.  We have to break out of the notion that the way we used to categorize things doesn’t apply anymore.  Structures are changing, new models are emerging.  We need to be flexible and analyze the best solution to each problem that faces us.  “One or the other” thinking just won’t cut it anymore.

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An Historic Day

Changing Administration

Changing Administration


Today marks the much-anticipated inauguration of our next President.  And to a country in the middle of two wars and a deepening recession, it is a moment of hope.  There is much speculation about what this new President will do for our country.  Particularly in the nonprofit sector, which always bears the brunt of any economic downturn, there is much anticipation about what tomorrow will bring for the sector.  As we watch the ceremony and festivities today, here are some thoughts about what the new administration might mean for the social sector.

Obama made many plans and promises about national service and social innovation during his campaign.  I wrote about that here.  Basically his ideas were:

  1. Growth of current national service programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps
  2. $4,000 tax credits to college students in exchange for 100 hours of community service
  3. Expanded programs for engaging retirees in community service
  4. 50 hours of required community service from middle and high school students each year
  5. Expansion of YouthBuild
  6. Allocation of 25% of college work study funds to community service projects

And, indeed, many of these ideas are contained in the economic stimulus package currently in front of Congress.  The Chronicle of Philanthropy gives a great summary of the implications of that plan on the nonprofit sector.  But in essence, the plan includes:

  • $200 million to expand AmeriCorps by 16,000 members
  • $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts for grants to arts groups
  • $50 million to Youth Build USA, a social entrepreneurial organization putting low-income young people to work building affordable housing.  You can see a video clip about this organization here.
  • $87 billion to temporarily increase the federal portion of Medicaid
  • $2.1 billion to Head Start to serve 110,000 additional children and create 50,000 jobs
  • $1 billion for Community Services Block Grants, and $1 billion for Community Development Block Grants which help states provide social services and housing to low-income residents
  • $1 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grants
  • $1 billion to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program
  • $1 billion to help community health centers renovate their facilities, and $500-million to help them provide care to uninsured and underinsured patients
  • $120 million to the Community Service Employment for Older Americans program, which would allow charities and other groups to add 24,000 participants
  • $100 million to the Compassion Capital Fund, which provides grants to religious and other charities to provide social services

However, these changes don’t go as far as many in the sector would like.  A coalition of several social entreprenurial groups, including America Forward, America’s Promise Alliance, Be the Change, and Citizen Schools, are urging Obama to create a “nonprofit stimulus package.”  The package would include a Social Investment Fund Network, a government and private venture philanthropy fund that invests growth capital in social entrepreneurs.

But before Obama has even been inaugurated, he has made a grand gesture towards the sector. Yesterday Colin Powell, founder of America’s Promise Alliance, lead Obama’s Renew America Together Initiative where unprecedented numbers of Americans spent MLK Day doing volunteer service.  Obama has pledged to make service a key part of his plan for getting America back on track.

This is an historic, exciting time.

Photo courtesy of CNN.

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How to Scale

Continuing my series on defining and exploring key terms in social innovation, I’d like to take a look at scale.  In an earlier post defining social entrepreneurship, I discussed the key part that scale plays:

Absolutely essential to the idea of social entrepreneurship is the idea of scale. A pattern changing idea, by definition, creates a new model. And to do so, it can’t just exist in one school, in one district, in one city. To truly be social entrepreneurship, the new idea must grow to scale, to reach all of those who can benefit from the solution.

However, just as there are various ways a successful business can grow to scale, there are different ways a nonprofit can grow to scale.  There is the franchise model that we see with organizations like Teach for America, Citizen Schools, or College Summit.  These organizations have a successful model with dramatic results that they want to replicate in other areas of the country.  They raise growth capital that will allow them to import the model to other cities and regions; they bring in or recruit a staff and build the new chapter.  This can be a very successful model.

In a session at this month’s annual Net Impact (an organization for socially-minded business school students and alums) conference, panelists had some provocative ideas for how nonprofits scale.  Aaron Hurst, founder of Taproot Foundation, an organization that provides pro-bono marketing, IT, and HR consulting to nonprofits, took the franchise idea even further arguing that there must be great consolidation within the nonprofit sector:

We need to talk about how we get foundations to stop giving inefficiently…the multitude of nonprofits with similar missions…[are like] the hundreds of Chinese restaurants across New York City. All the restaurants serve dumplings, lomein…[to be efficient] they should all be one Panda Express.

I’m not sure that is the answer.  Nathaniel Whittemore, founding Director of the Center for Global Engagement at Northwestern University argued in his blog on that scale for nonprofits needs to be thought of a bit differently.  Because of the social, consensus and local nature of nonprofit organizations, you cannot simply franchise a good idea from one city to the next.  He makes a very necessary distinction between scaling an organization and scaling a solution.  The former forces a model onto the next community, without taking into account local processes, norms, behaviors, beliefs, etc.  The latter approach molds the basic solution to the new area.  He believes the successful model is Jane Addams’ Hull House, one of the first settlement houses offering social services to the poor.

For [Jane]…[scale] meant helping other socially concerned citizens found their own organizations with similar but locally appropriate models. She was far less concerned with franchising and branding the Hull House name, but cared that poor people in every city had access to the same quality of services with dignity that her organization offered.

That’s not to say that organizations like Teach for America, Citizen Schools and others don’t meld their model to be locally appropriate,  but it is still very much a franchise model.  And as you grow that model overhead becomes more expensive, quality assurance standards become harder to enforce, and ultimately, the solution may creep farther away.

The franchise model also necessitates significant growth capital.  For example, College Summit has had to raise tens of millions of dollars in growth capital to expand to 8 states with their current program and 6 additional states with a pilot program.  And growth capital can be very difficult to find.

With a model more like Jane Addams’, scale is less about the organization that brings about the solution and more about the actual solution.  You are not building a nationwide organization with a very specific solution, but rather you are building local organizations that mold the solution to be most successful in their communities.  However, because the latter is less rigid and more decentralized it would be more difficult to ensure the quality and effectiveness of the solution, and perhaps much more difficult to track outcomes.

There is much more to be learned as social entrepreneurs continue to grapple with how best to grow to scale – what that means, and what it looks like.  But it is a very necessary discussion, because the true impact of social entrepreneurship does not lie in the ideas that social entrepreneurs create.  I don’t think we have ever lacked good ideas.  But rather, true solutions come when a great idea can grow to scale and fundamentally alter an old, broken model.  How that scale happens most effectively, however, is yet to be determined.

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Monday, November 24th, 2008 growth capital, Social Entrepreneurship No Comments


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