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John F. Kennedy

From Nonprofit Scarcity to Social Change Abundance

nasa celebratesBill 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.

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