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reinventing nonprofit sector

A Call to Arms for the Nonprofit Sector

Mario Morino’s new book, Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, is probably misnamed. It is not the boring, theoretical guide to evaluation, measurement and logic models that the title implies. It is much more a call to arms for the nonprofit sector.

Morino, co-founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners, one of the oldest venture philanthropy funds, argues that every nonprofit MUST, if it wants to survive in this new environment of “brutal austerity,” create a culture of performance. Indeed, he argues that “we will need nothing short of a quantum, sector-wide change.” Status quo simply will not work in the nonprofit sector anymore. And to help the movement along, they are offering the book in multiple formats, including free download on the VPP site.

As I read this book, I kept wanting to shout out, “Amen!” Finally someone argues so clearly why understanding if a social solution is working is not a luxury or a “nice to have” but rather an absolute necessity for our new reality. As Mario so eloquently puts it:

The magnitude of the combined hit – greatly reduced funding and increased need – will require organizations to literally reinvent themselves. Incremental responses will be insufficient…We can respond with infighting, robbing Peter to pay Paul, or continuing our incremental efforts to be better. Or we can respond with greater discipline, unity, and focus on making a quantum change in the effectiveness and impact of our entire sector.

He doesn’t pull any punches. It’s a completely new day.

Mario argues that every nonprofit organization must find a way to demonstrate the results of the work they engage in. And he and the other essayists in the book give some very clear reasons, beyond increased funding, why nonprofits must manage towards outcomes:

  1. To improve the lives of their clients. If you are tracking and analyzing whether you are making a difference in people’s lives, you are more likely to actually make a difference in their lives.
  2. To contribute to the larger and future field. Future solutions will be stronger because they will be based on learnings from past solutions.
  3. To stay competitive and relevant. The field of impact investing (investors who provide money to social entrepreneurs who can provide a financial and a social return) has increased the pressure for any social impact organization (nonprofit or for-profit) to demonstrate a social return.

Ultimately Mario is encouraging nonprofits to answer the very simple, but fundamental question “To What End?” So many nonprofit organizations simply exist to “do good work.” But that is just not enough anymore. It’s not enough for those that fund the work, and it’s not enough for those who receive the services. Money is increasingly hard to find, while the problems that nonprofits exist to solve are growing increasingly complex. Nonprofits must determine what they exist to change and whether they are actually creating those changes.

Mario is ever-mindful, however, that large scale evaluation projects are simply unrealistic for the vast majority of nonprofits. They don’t have the money or time to devote to such projects. After laying out his “call to arms” in the first half of the book, he and other experts provide key initial steps and case studies to encourage nonprofits to develop their own ways to manage to outcomes.

At the core, Mario is arguing for a culture shift. He believes that if nonprofit leaders can start to move their organizations towards the mindset and discipline of answering “To What End,” the sector as a whole will be transformed and ultimately more effective at creating change.

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Can Reactive Clark Kent Become Strategic Superman?

Note: This post originally appeared on the Social Entrepreneurship blog earlier this year.

For the nonprofit sector to truly climb aboard the social innovation train, as opposed to being abandoned by it, nonprofit leaders need to move past the reactive toward the strategic.

But is that possible? Have nonprofits been stuck in a resource-constrained, charity mindset for too long to be made strategic, bold, big thinkers? It’s been a vicious cycle. Nonprofits lack adequate resources so they become very protective of what they have and wary of any actions which might threaten those resources. Therefore they become exceedingly risk averse and fearful of innovation. They focus more often than not on keeping the doors open as opposed to investing time, energy and resources in long-term strategy.

But that’ s just not going to cut it anymore. These times demand a radically different mindset and approach. The nonprofit sector must move from the reactive to the strategic. So how does a reactive approach differ from a strategic one? It looks like this:

When a financial crisis hits the organization, the reactive approach is to focus on keeping the doors open and staying afloat. But a strategic approach focuses on what caused the crisis and how to fix the underlying problem, model or system so that they never return there again.

When a funder wants to award a significant sum to an organization for new programs that detract from, rather than bolster, the organization’s theory of change, a reactive approach focuses on the increase in revenue, but a strategic approach recognizes the misalignment and turns the money down.

reactive approach allows program staff to continue with a status quo method of program delivery, but a strategic approach constantly asks hard questions, tracks results, pushes outcomes, restructures inefficient processes, gets underneath the surface to make programs better, stronger, more impactful, more sustainable.

reactive leader arrives at board meetings with reports, charts and status updates, gets a rubber stamp on day-to-day activities and breathes a sigh of relief that the board didn’t ask too many questions. But a strategic leader analyzes the unique contributions each individual board member and the board as a whole can make and leverages those contributions effectively, engages the board in meaningful discussions and actions around where the organization is going and trends in the external marketplace, and focuses board work on big picture issues and opportunities, creating key external networks, and building a strong financial future.

reactive approach helps the board recruit new members that fit narrow definitions of experience, gender, ethnicity, and size of pocketbook. A strategic approach compares the long-term goals of the organization to the competencies, networks, experience and resources required and creates an intentional board recruitment strategy to get there.

A reactive leader crosses things of their daily to do list and feels satisfied because the trains ran on time, crises were avoided, and everyone got a paycheck. A strategic leader is rarely satisfied and constantly works to build key alliances with external partners, learns new skills, pushes their staff harder, evaluates their work, continually refines their model and responds effectively to a constantly changing environment all in the name of greater impact.

reactive leader allows the natural uncertainty of running a nonprofit to cause fear and inaction. A strategic leader, like a true entrepreneur, recognizes the opportunity for innovation that uncertainty offers and embraces and uses that opportunity to continually mold the organization’s solution to the external market of need and funding.

It remains to be seen whether a reactive leader can transform into a strategic one. I would bet that the success of the social innovation movement as a whole rides on it.

Photo Credit: Loren Javier

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