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Fixing the World Requires Disruptive, not Incremental, Change

The nonprofit sector has always been, at its core, about social disruption–some sort of disequilibrium exists in the market (poverty, unequal access to healthcare, segregation, homelessness, hunger) and a nonprofit organization is born to correct it. But somewhere along the way the big changes nonprofits sought to make in social norms, inadequate institutions, and unfair systems shrunk to small, incremental changes. Visions of disruption gave way to plans for the incremental. But we need to find our way back to disruption.

Incremental change is when a small portion of a problem is addressed.  It’s the idea that 10% of hungry children are fed, or 15% of at-risk youth go to college. Incremental change is small, endless steps toward solving a huge problem. At an incremental rate you begin to wonder if the problem will actually ever go away.

Disruptive change, on the other hand, is about reaching a tipping point where the solution, rather than the problem, becomes the norm.  It’s the vision of giving every kid a bright future. Or the goal of ending hunger.  Disruptive change is not just about the idea of scale, a key component of the social entrepreneurship movement where solutions are expanded to other cities or other people who could benefit. Disruption is in essence about reaching a point at which there is no going back. The old way yields to a new one.

A great example of disruptive change is the charter school movement. The American public education system is quite broken. But charter schools like Aspire, Green Dot, and KIPP have disrupted that broken system and are creating a new model of getting kids, who would otherwise drop out of the system, to college. None of these three charter school will ever reach all kids who need them, but rather these schools are demonstrating how to educate poor, at-risk kids. And the idea is that their model will be adopted as the norm by the American public education system. And given the Obama administration’s interest in these models, that could actually become a reality.

Or take homelessness, another seemingly intractable problem. The goal of  Common Ground, a nonprofit in New York City focusing on homelessness, is to “change the social and economic forces that undermine stability and health, and produce homelessness.” They want to completely end homelessness by changing the underlying systems that cause it. And it looks like they are doing just that in New York City. They have already reduced homelessness in Times Square by 87% and throughout the city by 47%.  Eradicating homelessness in the largest city in the country, that’s pretty disruptive.

But charter schools and Common Ground are the exceptions, rather than the rule in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits are encouraged to think and act incrementally because they don’t often know where funding will come from year to year. It is difficult to make huge goals or attack big problems if the resources for execution are uncertain.  An undercapitalized, highly competitive market like the one in which nonprofits operate does not incent disruptive change.

But disruption, by its very nature, is uncertain and risky. More than anything else it involves a change in mindset. A commitment to disruption is a determination not to let fear and resource constraints hold you back from the disruption the market requires. The nonprofit sector needs to get back to its roots. Incremental change just doesn’t cut it anymore. Let’s get back to the disruption that defines the sector.

Photo Credit: tcpix

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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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5 Ways to Scale

Key to the entire social entrepreneurship movement is the idea of scale.  If we are truly going to solve a social problem, right a disequilibrium, or fix a crumbling institution the solution has to grow to scale.  It cannot stay small and secluded; it has to grow until it has changed the underlying system.  But scale can be a nebulous thing.  What does it mean, what does it look like, how does it happen?

Peter Frumkin, head of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas at Austin and leading nonprofit management and philanthropy thinker and author, came up with a model for understanding the various forms scale can take.  His 5 Models for Scale provides a nice framework for understanding the broader implications of what scale is and what it can look like.  He defines scale as “creating a lasting and significant impact” and defines the five platforms  from which scale can emerge as:

  1. Financial Strength: Scale comes from the financial strength and sustainability of a large and enduring institution (usually universities and museums).  Through endowments and deep donor relationships these institutions can weather most, if not all, economic situations and potentially exist indefinitely.  Scale here is not about outcomes or inputs, but rather about the institution itself and its ability to endure.
  2. Program Expansion: Scale is a function of the increasing number of clients served.  By growing the number of program inputs (clients) by several multiples, a program can achieve scale.  This form of scale happens in one location, not to be confused with Multi-Site Replication (below).
  3. Comprehensiveness: Scale here is achieved when a set of activities and interventions occur within one organization or a closely integrated collaboration of organizations.  For example, when the food, housing, education, childcare and healthcare needs of the homeless are all addressed through one integrated solution, in the case of Jane Addams’ Hull House.
  4. Multi-site Replication: Scale in this case expands a program to other sites in the city, region, country or world.  This replication can be instigated either from within the organization (through franchises and chapters) or from outside of the organization through independent efforts of funders or other interested parties.  This form of scale often requires the vision and commitment of a single individual to make it a success, for example with Teach for America or KIPP (charter schools).
  5. Accepted Doctrine: In its final form, scale does not involve growth or expansion of an organization or program, but rather an idea.  Scale occurs when a way of thinking or addressing a problem or field changes.  A particular organization or program does not control scale in this case, but rather a new model or way of addressing a problem reaches a “tipping point” where it suddenly becomes the norm.

Each model has its benefits and drawbacks.  For example, the Financial Strength model doesn’t necessarily mean that change is occurring, rather an institution merely persists.  The Program Expansion model, too, doesn’t guarantee impact, rather scale is about increasing the number of inputs.  The Accepted Doctrine model is difficult, if not impossible, to control and mold to a particular outcome.  And, as mentioned above, Multi-Site Replication relies heavily on a key individual, a very clear understanding and articulation of what makes the current model successful, and an ability to replicate that success.

I think this framework is a useful way to understand the various forms that scale can take.  It all goes back to the notion that in order for social entrepreneurship to be a successful movement, we have to understand what it is that we are doing and how we are doing it.  If broad and sweeping change in various areas of need is the ultimate goal, we have to be smart and strategic about how that change is happening and what form of change makes the most sense.  Impact, change, scale can take many forms depending on the problem being faced and the best solution(s) for it.  I imagine that as the field of social entrepreneurship continues to evolve other forms and understanding of scale will emerge.

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Thursday, April 9th, 2009 Nonprofits, scale, Social Entrepreneurship 6 Comments

Education Reform vs. the Social Entrepreneur

Isn’t creating significant change in society what the social sector (nonprofits and the philanthropists who fund them) is all about?  A person starts a nonprofit organization when they recognize some disequilibrium (poverty, homelessness, failing schools) and they have a theory of change that will result in righting that disequilibrium.

I think at times, however, the structures that we create in the social sector get us away from that fundamental goal.  It’s interesting to take a step back and evaluate whether or not activity within the social sector is significantly changing broken systems.

Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Washington, DC, wrote a thought-provoking and controversial opinion piece at the Chronicle of Philanthropy about how social entrepreneurial programs like Teach for America, Green Dot and KIPP are not really solving the problem of the crumbling American school system.  He argues that these programs, which are beloved by funders and proponents of social entrepreneurship, “don’t have a prayer of dealing with the problem at the scale that is needed.”  It is not the quality of the innovative programs or the ability to get results that he is at odds with.  Rather, it is the lack of scale of these programs.  They just can’t address the entire system:

But as exemplary as they are, small programs like these are not equal to the task. Teach for America accounts for just two-tenths of 1 percent of the new teachers entering our schools every year. The entire enrollment of the Green Dot schools is no larger than the enrollment of one typical high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. KIPP schools, the object of enormous attention in the national news media, has an enrollment equal to three-hundredths of 1 percent of the 92,000 public schools in the United States.

He argues that instead of funding these “handful of small, disruptive interventions” we need to emulate the most successful countries’ educational systems by:

  • Recruiting teachers from the top one-third to one-fifth of college graduates by paying them as much as the other professions they could just as easily choose to go into: medicine, law, architecture, accounting, engineering.
  • Giving them the same kind of control over the way their services are delivered to their clients as the other professions have over theirs…turning virtually all of the decisions as to how the schools are run over to them.
  • Adopting high-quality board examinations like those the most successful countries use, which can measure a student’s grasp of the concepts underlying the subject, the student’s creativity and capacity for innovation, as well as the student’s knowledge and ability to apply what he or she has learned to real-world problems.
  • Shifting the school financing system away from a reliance on the local property tax and toward a system that makes sure each and every student has the resources needed to get to internationally benchmarked standards.

He recommends a complete overhaul of the American education system at a cost of $60 billion a year in initial investments.  These costs would eventually be offset by expenses saved.

He argues that to get this kind of systemic change donors to educational programs must “shift their attention from financing cameo programs to putting their money into groups that influence public policy. That’s where the payoff is.”

It is an interesting, bold idea.  I’m not sure, however, that I completely agree.  I think we’ve seen over the past several decades that education policy is broken.  There are so many special interests in the field of education policy, it’s unclear to me where we would pour the money.  Perhaps we needed social entrepreneurs like Teach for America and others to point out the problems within the system and offer a theory of change.  Now that they have demonstrated that there are programs that work and new ways to do things, we can now create policy around those ideas.  And with a new administration and a new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who has a history of reforming the Chicago Public Schools and implementing new models like Teach for America, perhaps policy reform has a chance.  It will be interesting to watch.

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Wednesday, January 14th, 2009 scale, Social Entrepreneurship 1 Comment


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