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social change

10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Nov 2016

reading in darkI don’t have to tell you that November was rough.

A shocking end to an intensely divisive presidential campaign has left many in the social change world reeling. From trying to understand the underlying issues that are dividing our country, to figuring out how to move forward from here and what the future may hold, November was full of soul-searching, blame and calls to action. And growing activism and protest added to the feeling of unrest. But beyond the election there were some bright spots —  a new experiment in growing individual giving, a new way to evaluate nonprofits, and new technology to watch in 2017.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in November. But I know it was an incredibly busy month, so please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. With a presidential election outcome that almost no one predicted, there was plenty of conversation about what everyone missed. From deep rural disaffection, to the “class culture gap,” to political correctness on college campuses, there was no shortage of analysis about what might be causing such deep political divides in our country. As always, Pew Research added critical data to the conversation by breaking down America’s political divisions into 5 charts.

  2. Some lay blame at the feet of philanthropy.  From philanthropy forgetting about the white working class, to elite distance, there were many theories. But philanthropic historian Benjamin Soskis was perhaps most insightful: “We must admit that philanthropy…failed. With a few notable exceptions, grant makers have not given enough attention to our nation’s civic health. No matter how much more attention nonprofits and foundations have given to advocacy work, this election calls out the need for deeper structural investments in the civic infrastructure on which advocacy rests. There is a desperate need for more funding of grass-roots social-justice organizations that can speak to the anxieties and fears of Americans across the nation.”

  3. And there was real concern about what a Trump presidency could mean for the social change sector. Vu Le provided some balm to worried nonprofit leaders, David Callahan predicted 6 effects on the social change sector, and Lucy Bernholz worried about the impact on civil society. But at least in these early days, some nonprofits have actually seen a significant spike in support.

  4. Amid the soul-searching and prediction there were also many calls to action. NPQ offered 10 questions for nonprofit boards to ask themselves and 4 things for nonprofits to do post-election, Vu Le suggested nonprofits and foundations get on the same page, and Lucy Bernholz offered some practical advice.

  5. But perhaps most inspiring was Ford Foundation President Darren Walker urging social change leaders to stay hopeful because “We can, and must, learn from history that the greatest threat to our democracy is not terrorism, nor environmental crisis, nor nuclear proliferation, nor the results of any one election. The greatest threat to our democracy is hopelessness: the hopelessness of many millions who expressed themselves with their ballots, and the hopelessness of many millions more who expressed themselves by not voting at all. If we are to overwhelm the forces of inequality and injustice—if we are to dedicate ourselves anew to the hard and heavy lifting of building the beloved community—then the cornerstone of our efforts must be hope.”

  6. Amid the political upheaval, activism and protest were on the rise. The ongoing protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation continued to grow in size and attention in November.

  7. And Chobani yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has become something of a corporate activist by fighting for and employing immigrants and refugees.

  8. Writing on the Markets for Good blog, Andrew Means is completely over Overhead. Instead he encouraged us to move to a cost per marginal outcome metric to evaluate nonprofits. Yes!

  9. Beginning the 2017 predictions a bit early, the Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offered 5 Nonprofit Technology Trends to Watch in 2017.

  10. Along with the Gates Foundation, ideas42 is experimenting with a new approach to growing charitable giving in the US — helping individuals set philanthropy goals.  Fascinating.

Photo Credit: Emanuele Toscano

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Using Networks for Social Change in a New Era

social change networksAmid all of the uncertainty in the wake of the election, one thing is sure. In order to survive and thrive, nonprofit leaders cannot stick their heads in the sand. As others have already enumerated, there is much to be done to prepare for the road ahead — from ensuring your board is actively engaged, to bolstering your partnership with funders, to growing (or launching) your advocacy efforts.

As part of all of this, it is critical that nonprofit leaders not go it alone. They must understand and harness the power of networks in order to grow their ability to influence the future.

As Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano put it, networked nonprofits

“see themselves as nodes within a constellation of equal, interconnected partners, rather than as hubs at the center of their nonprofit universes. Because of the unrestricted and frequent communication between their different nodes, networked nonprofits are better positioned to develop more holistic, coordinated, and realistic solutions to social issues than are traditional nonprofit hubs.”

And now — more than ever — we need a social change sector that is coordinated and offers real solutions to the many social challenges we face.

But what does that look like? How does a single nonprofit leader analyze and begin to grow her organization’s networks?

She must work with board and staff to analyze their current and potential networks and create a plan for growth, by asking these questions:

Who Else Is Working on Similar Social Issues?
What other entities are working on similar issue areas? Are you connected to them? In a significant way? If not, make a list and start getting your board and staff to forge alliances, where possible. And ask each of these entities where else you should be connected.

Who Are the Leaders in Other Sectors?
Beyond just the nonprofit space, are there key for-profit industries or local, state or federal government entities that impact your set of social issues? Are you connected to these networks in a significant way? If not, get busy.

Who Are the Policymakers Impacting Your Issue Area?
To the earlier point about moving into the advocacy space (which more and more social change experts are encouraging nonprofits to do), think about local, state or federal policies that might impact your work. Who are the policymakers you should be talking to in order to make sure they fully understand the issues and their impact? Do your networks include these policymakers? If not, get to work.

What Expertise Do We Lack?
A single organization has only a very limited list of core competencies, but you will need a lot of varied expertise to create the social change you seek. So where are you lacking? And who out there (people, organizations) have that expertise? Find them and figure out how you can partner in a significant way to move forward.

Who Are the Influencers?
What about people who are not represented above, but who have the ear of those who are? Who are the key influencers, and are you connected to them? If not, again make a list and start attacking it.

 

Once you know all of the people and groups to which you want your organization connected, start assigning parts out to your board and staff. Set up meetings to explore how you can start partnering towards bigger social change.

Because we need social change leaders who are not frightened by the looming future, but rather aligned and empowered to face it together.

If you want to learn more about building networks for social change, read my interviews with network experts Anna MuoioJane Wei-Skillern, and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and check out the New Network Leader website.

Photo Credit: Martin Grandjean

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Stand Up Social Change Leaders

moonshadow

These are difficult days. This past week I have felt incredibly lost. I have been thinking a lot, trying to understand what is happening in our country, in our communities, to and with our people. And I have been grappling, as I know you all have been, with how we move forward from here.

I have struggled with how to write the blog, doubting whether I can shed any light on something that none of us really understands. But then a colleague said to me, “It’s even more important now that you write. You have followers, and thus you have a responsibility to lead them toward hope.” That is a heavy lift, and I doubt that I can really hope to fulfill it, but I will reluctantly stand up and play my role as a leader.

But I ask the same of each of you.

Because the only way forward for our country is if each one of you, as our country’s social change leaders, stands up as true leaders in your work, your communities, our country.

And in my mind here’s how we start to make that happen.

Build community inside and out.
This week I attended a conference of social sector leaders and one of the speakers described how a sense of community is the backbone of resilience. If we are going to get through this, we cannot isolate ourselves. We must find and forge community. And we must go beyond our own comfortable spheres. Our country is really struggling right now. We must find ways, big and small, to connect communities, tap into new ones, and stretch our networks. We cannot let the red/blue, rural/urban, middle/working class divides that this election highlighted define us as a country. We are better than that. So wherever you are, break down those walls and connect — really connect — with people inside and outside of your circles.

Discover empathy.
And in order to do that, you must embrace empathy. Another colleague said to me this week, “Do you know how we can move forward from this? Empathy.” And that is absolutely right. Start here. Yes this election brought out the worst in us, but perhaps it did so because of some pretty stark failings of our economic and political systems. So let’s stop blaming and instead work to understand the realities that people are living and figure out solutions.

Be a real leader.
Which brings me back to where I started. We are suffering a crisis of leadership in our country. I truly believe that the majority of people who voted for Trump were not casting a vote for hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia, but were instead casting a vote against a deeply flawed economic and political system. We need real leaders — big and small, and in every corner of this country — to stand up, speak up, and do the hard, right thing. We have to stop waiting for someone else to come forward. We are each responsible for whatever corner of influence we hold, and we must use that influence for good. So dig deep and figure out how you can help, not hurt, your communities and your country. Step away from the despair and the fear and instead move whomever you can, however you can, toward the light.

I am choosing to find the opportunity in this darkness. And yes, that is a choice I have made today, and a choice I will have to continue to make every single day after.

And the opportunity I see is that these times can force each one of us to take a hard look at ourselves and emerge as empathetic leaders willing to bridge divides, build communities and help our country, our democracy, ALL of our people, find a way forward together.

If you have felt (and continue to feel) like giving up — as I have many times over the past week — please hear me when I say that you simply cannot. Now more than ever our country needs you social change leaders to point the way toward the future. We must resist — at all costs — the urge to stick our heads in the sand, curse those who didn’t vote the way we wanted, or slink away in fear of the future.

Now more than ever we must all, every single one of us, step up as leaders for these new challenges we face. Whether that’s inspiring your staff, or marshaling your colleagues, or getting outside your own walls to find common ground. We all have at least one way in which we can be a true leader.

So find it, embrace it, and get to work.

Photo Credit:Wilson Lam

 

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When It’s Dark Enough, You Can See The Stars

social changeLike many of you, Tuesday night cut me to the core. It felt like an enormous step backward toward hate, bigotry, xenophobia, economic uncertainty.

When I woke Wednesday morning after less than 2 hours of sleep I could not comprehend how I was going to get through the day. I wanted to hide under the covers and melt into oblivion.

But instead my calendar dictated that I would have to endure a full day of meetings. I didn’t know how I was going to be my usual, optimistic self cheering on nonprofit leaders. Instead of my normal perspective of hope and opportunity, I could now only see the seemingly insurmountable obstacles standing in their way.

But to my complete surprise I found solace in those very nonprofit leaders.

My first call was with an amazing woman who is working to revamp journalism and make it more responsive, accessible, and sustainable. We started the call commiserating about the state of the country. But she quickly pivoted to her work. She described her plans, the networks she has formed, the vision she has for stronger, more effective local journalism. As she continued to talk I could feel — to my complete disbelief — my heart start to soar.

As the day went on, I had similar conversations with social changemakers who were disappointed and frustrated certainly, but full of ideas and new energy for moving forward.

And the drumbeat continued on throughout the day. The thing I kept hearing from nonprofit leaders over and over — via social media, phone calls, blog posts, or emails — was a steely resolve to work harder. As one of my clients put it, “I look forward to working with you in this new era.  Our work is more difficult, but more critical.”

Far from being defeated, perhaps this election will have the opposite effect on nonprofit leaders. To me they seem emboldened.

And as I thought about it more, that makes complete sense.

Nonprofit leaders are nothing if not resilient and tenacious. Over many decades they have weathered deep funding cuts, changing political winds, chilly regulatory environments, dramatically growing demand for services. And they just keep getting back up.

Every. Single. Time.

Nonprofit leaders and the critical work they do aren’t going anywhere. And thank God for that. Because now — more than ever — we need nonprofit leaders to lead us toward greater inclusion, greater tolerance, greater economic equity, a greater democracy.

Perhaps, instead of being the final blow, this election will serve as a lightning rod to galvanize our social change sector to lead us all, amid this very dark night, toward the light.

And there is a tremendous amount to be done.

So, let’s get to work.

Photo Credit: Greg Rakozy

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Oct 2016

social change readingOctober was a bit of a whirlwind in the world of social change. Continued concerns that philanthropy is not positioned to truly impact wealth inequality, a confusing pivot by Charity Navigator in the Overhead Myth movement, some case studies of networked approaches to social change, and a great blog series on nonprofit financial health all made for some interesting reads.

Below is my pick of the top 10 social change reads in October. But, please add what I missed in the comments.

And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. You can also read past 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. There seems to be a growing discussion around whether philanthropy, which results from wealth inequality, can actually be effective at remedying that inequality. Writing on the openDemocracy blog, Michael Edwards takes the Ford Foundation and other foundations working on wealth inequality to task for not seeking to reform the underlying systems that feed that inequality. As he puts it, “Imagine what would happen if we re-configured the supply of money for social change…It would mean the wholesale transformation of institutional philanthropy, since for Ford and others like it an assault on privilege is essentially an assault upon themselves.” And in an interesting and related development, this month head of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker joined the corporate board of Pepsico, which some argue contributes to the obesity epidemic and ultimately economic inequality. But David Callahan argues that Walker could serve as a positive force to push Pepsico to “do better.”

  2. For only the second time in its 26 years The Chronicle of Philanthropy‘s annual Philanthropy 400 list ranks a nonprofit other than the United Way Worldwide as the biggest fundraiser. This year Fidelity Charitable, which houses donor advised funds, took the #1 spot. And some think this is a bellwether for philanthropy. But Jim Schaffer has some issues with the list and how it ignores the deeper complexities of philanthropy.

  3. If you are looking for data about where the social sector is going, this month provided lots of it. From Fidelity Charitable’s report on the future of philanthropy, to a new study from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management on nonprofit board chairs, to new data from the Urban Institute on the nonprofit workforce.

  4. In a head-scratching move, Charity Navigator, one of the proponents of the campaign to overcome the Overhead Myth wrote a blog post arguing that nonprofits that keep their overhead percentage to 15% or less are “excellent.” Many, took them to task.

  5. On the eve of the presidential election, Kiersten Marek from Inside Philanthropy offers some predictions about how philanthropy focused on women’s and children’s issues might fare under a Clinton presidency.

  6. In what has become an incessant drumbeat, ProPublica again criticizes the American Red Cross, this time for a botched response to the Louisiana flooding this summer.

  7. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a huge fan of Twitter, but it’s struggling. NPR tech writer Laura Sydell wonders if becoming a nonprofit might be the answer for this social network that is playing a growing role in social change efforts.

  8. Using networks for social change is a hot topic lately. Talia Milgrom-Elcott provides a case study for a networked approach to growing STEM education, and R. Patrick Bixler, Clare Zutz, and Ashley Lovell provide a case study on using networks for regional conservation. But Jake Hayman, writing in Forbes argues that philanthropy actually dis-incentivizes nonprofits to pursue a networked approach.

  9. In a not-to-be-missed blog series, the Nonprofit Finance Fund provides a great tutorial on “Best Practices for Nonprofit Financial Health” (part one, part two, and part three).

  10. And if you wonder why you are here and what your role is, look no further than Steven Pressfield who writes: “I believe that life exists on at least two levels. The lower level is the material plane…The higher level is the home of…the Muse. The higher level is a lot smarter than the lower level. The higher level understands in a far, far deeper way. It understands who we are. It understands why we are here. It understands the past and the future and our roles within both. My job, as I understand it, is to make myself open to this higher level. My job is to keep myself alert and receptive. My job is to be ready, in the fullest professional sense, when the alarm bell goes off and I have to slide down the pole and jump into the fire engine.”

Photo Credit: Peter Griffin

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A Monster List of Social Changemakers on Twitter

social change monster listToday is Halloween, which means it’s time for another monster list. In keeping with my Halloween tradition on the blog, today I’d like to add to past monster lists (of social change blogs, conferences, books, and resources) with a monster list of social changemakers to follow on Twitter.

I know, I know, Twitter is struggling.  Maybe it will never become the profit powerhouse that Facebook is, but Twitter has become a unique and powerful social change tool, through hashtag movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #ArabSpring and its ability to connect like-minded people.

In my mind, Twitter is infinitely more thought-provoking and gamechanging than other social networks. So I hope it finds its way and continues to play an important role in the social change space.

Below is my monster list (in no particular order) of interesting social change people to follow on Twitter. These are people who have fascinating things to say about the world of social change. They are nonprofit, philanthropic, government leaders; journalists; thought leaders and more who use Twitter as a way to spark conversation, spread ideas and make social change a reality.

I have let them describe themselves via their Twitter “Bio”:

  • @knightfdn The Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts.
  • @pndblog Opinion and commentary on the changing world of philanthropy. Brought to you by Philanthropy News Digest and the Foundation Center.
  • @vppartners Venture Philanthropy Partners brings people together to support children and youth.
  • @RockefellerFdn The Rockefeller Foundation’s mission—unchanged since 1913—is to improve the well-being of humanity throughout the world.
  • @carolinefiennes Director of Giving Evidence: encouraging /enabling charitable *giving* based on sound *evidence*. Wrote acclaimed book, It Ain’t What You Give. FT columnist.
  • @ClaraGMiller President, F. B. Heron Foundation
  • @MarketsForGood #Information to drive #socimp. Movement seeking ways to increase the social sector’s capacity to generate, share & use #data to improve decision making.
  • @Cingib Strategist/writer for foundations/NPs on civic engagement, capacity-building, democracy, philanthropy, nonprofit sector, and education
  • @kanter Let’s talk about networks, data, self-care, & social media for nonprofit learning & impact. #nptech Instructional designer, trainer, walker, & magic markers!
  • @ajscholz Chief Everything Officer @SphaeraInc / Learning to collaborate to survive the 21st century / We now have the technological, legal and financial tools for it!
  • @Philanthropy News, resources, advice, and commentary about the nonprofit world from The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
  • @KateSBarr Believes that working at & leading nonprofits calls upon the best in people. Executive director at @NAFund
  • @NTENorg Serving our members in the nonprofit community to better use technology to further their mission. We promote nonprofit tech (#nptech) & training (#NTENlearn).
  • @Daniel_Stid Skeptical optimist, Madisonian, partisan of representative democracy, fan of Sparty and the Flying Dutchmen.
  • @IUPhilanthropy Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy offers a comprehensive approach to philanthropy—Improving Philanthropy to Improve the World.
  •  President/CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. Committed to helping our sector exceed expectations.
  •  Director for Effective Philanthropy at the Hewlett Foundation.
  •  Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.
  • @CEPData The Center for Effective Philanthropy focuses on the development of comparative data to enable higher-performing funders.
  •  BUILD Director at the Ford Foundation. Passionate about the social sector, addressing inequality in all its forms, & Jane Austen.
  •  We make millions of dollars in loans to nonprofits and push for fundamental improvement in how money is given and used in the sector.
  •  The National Council of Nonprofits is a trusted resource and advocate for America’s charitable nonprofits.
  • Crusader for at in and beyond. Especially fond of rhymes.
  • @PackardOE We’re the Packard Foundation Organizational Effectiveness Team. We’re here to share and learn about organizational effectiveness, philanthropy and supporting the social sector.
  •  Founder of /. Now leading to further reveal the power of food, community & social enterprise. No Waste!! Opinions are mine.
  •  Reporter at The Chronicle of Philanthropy ~ I cover nonprofit innovation, social enterprise, data, and technology. (I am so not the political pundit.)

I know I have missed many thought-provoking social changemakers. So, who would you add to the list?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Moving Toward a Network Mindset: An Interview with Jane Wei-Skillern

jane wei-skillernIn this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Jane Wei-Skillern.

Jane is the co-author of the groundbreaking 2008 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “The Networked Nonprofit,” and a leading researcher on networks for social change. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Social Sector Leadership at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and has also served on the faculties of the London, Harvard, and Stanford Business Schools.  For the past 15 years, her research has focused on high impact nonprofit networks, network leadership and network cultures.

You can read other interviews with social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: Jane, you and Sonia Marciano arguably coined the term “networked nonprofit” with your 2008 Stanford Social Innovation Review article of the same name. But is the idea of creating and using networks to create social change necessarily new to the space? How is a networked nonprofit different now than in the past, or what has changed?

Jane: In our article, we were most interested in the ways in which leaders and organizations catalyzed and engaged in collaborations successfully. Thus, the focus in the article was much more on the culture, or the norms and values, of what makes collaborations succeed, rather than a strict definition or structure of what collaborations should look like.

The concept of partnerships, collaboration, alliances, networks, or any number of other terms we could use, are of course nothing new in the nonprofit sector. In fact, we are not particular about the terminology that is used to describe collaborative efforts or whether they choose to use the term “networked nonprofit” at all. These lessons were drawn from detailed case studies of successful networks, many of which had been operating for years or decades before we studied them as researchers.

At the same time, we used the term “networked nonprofit” to describe a particular approach to collaboration, one that was oriented around social impact above all else, that emerged from the bottom up by community members in the field, as a way to address problems more effectively, rather than collaboration for collaboration’s sake. The networks were unique in that while they might have been catalyzed by a few instrumental actors initially, all participants worked in true partnership, as peers and equals to drive toward field level impact.

Consequently, they were able to achieve significant commitment, investment and support from participants, and generate leverage on resources and capacity, to achieve mission impact much more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably. It is this experience and wisdom about what was working well in the field that we wanted to bring attention to, especially at a time when so many in the field were struggling to scale impact through individual social entrepreneurs/social enterprises by proliferating program/organization innovations, building organizational capacity, scale, and brands.

Nell: How is the concept of a network different than or related to the concept of a social movement, like BlackLivesMatter? Are social movements the same or different than networks? 

Jane: I believe that the concepts that enable social movements to succeed are very similar to those that would enable networked nonprofits to succeed.  Social Movement scholars and analysts have highlighted four stages of successful social movements which were succinctly described in this article. These four stages are:

  1. A community forms around a common goal
  2. The community mobilizes resources
  3. The community finds solutions (what I call “fourth options”)
  4. The movement is accepted by (or actually replaces) the establishment

In this respect, networked nonprofits are very similar. The network emerges around a common goal, rather than a particular program or organizational model. The community mobilizes the resources from throughout the network, and based on existing relationships in the community.  The solution is emergent and comes from the community members themselves, rather than being pushed from the top down. And finally, once a network is up and running and proves itself to be effective, it becomes the primary vehicle for change, rather than the individual organizations themselves.

Nell: You recently launched a new site offering resources to those interested in becoming a networked leader. What is your goal with this new site?

Jane: The stated mission of the website is: “To champion network leaders, and the networks that they serve, to nurture change on the challenges that dwarf us all.” It’s an interesting story about how we came to create this website together.

In early 2016, I had the opportunity to work with Children and Nature Network to share my research on network leadership through a series of webinars with their network members. Through this project I got to know Amy Pertschuk, co-founder of Children and Nature Network, who found the ideas so compelling that she offered her services pro bono to help develop a web site to share resources.

Initially, Amy asked if we should create a domain name focused on me and my research. I immediately realized that that would be too limiting. In order to achieve leveraged and scalable impact through this website, I absolutely needed to practice what I preach and make the site much less about me and much more about championing network leaders and the networks of which they are a part.

It also made sense to reach out to some of my most inspiring and trusted colleagues who have deep experience leading, developing, and writing about networks themselves to develop the website jointly. We have all worked to build this site to support experienced and aspiring network leaders. The resources on the site have been collected and curated by a community of practitioners and network supporters working to increase the impact of social sector leaders and organizations by promoting the principles of successful networks.

Nell: Is the networked approach right for every nonprofit, or does it apply better to certain types of leaders or organizations? And how can a nonprofit leader interested in this approach move forward with it?

Jane: I like that you emphasize that it is an approach rather than a structure or model. Sometimes people think that they need to reorganize or restructure in order to be a network. Instead, I view it as a mindset and leadership approach that can be used by people in all types of organizations, whether in the private, public, or nonprofit sectors. Though I do believe that it is particularly relevant in the social sectors where the primary objective is, or should be, to generate social value that is not owned or captured by any single entity, in contrast to private sector organizations whose objective is to generate shareholder value.

The network leadership principles focus on: mission before organization; governance through trust-based relationships, rather than top down controls; promotion of others rather than oneself; and building of constellations rather than stars. These can be applied at all levels of an organization, from the executive suite to leaders out in the field. It is a shift from traditional leadership approaches that focus on the charismatic individual who has formal authority to get things done, to a more open-sourced approach to addressing social problems.

Network leaders start with the mission and engage others (especially those they seek to serve) to mobilize resources to support them doing what they would have wanted to do for themselves. It is a significant departure from doing ‘to’ and instead working with others as peers, equals, and true partners.

Photo Credit: Harvard Business School

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5 Conversations the Nonprofit Sector Should Have

douglas fairbanksChange is certainly happening within the nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it. From efforts to make philanthropy better at addressing inequity, to movement away from the overhead myth (and other myths), we are witnessing important shifts in how we tackle (and fund that tackling of) social challenges.

But I’m hungry for more.

And more could emerge from honest and transparent conversations about what is holding the social change sector back. There are some key hurdles facing the sector, and we have no hope of finding solutions to those challenges unless we start some no holds barred conversations, like:

  1. What keeps nonprofits from creating more sustainable business models?
    Everyone understands that nonprofits are sorely under-resourced and struggle to find sustainable financing for their work. But few are trying to really understand how we change this reality sector-wide. A few funders have commissioned research on the state of money in the sector, but it’s not nearly enough. I would love to see a real, solutions-oriented conversation about a problem that everyone (nonprofit leaders, boards, funders) knows exists.

  2. Why do we hold nonprofits to a different standard than for-profits?
    Because the nonprofit sector was borne out of the charitable impulse, we continue to see it as more holy than and separate from the for-profit sector. Therefore we are uncomfortable with nonprofits being too political, raising too much money, or spending too much on infrastructure. As a stark example, the nonprofits working for reform to our fairly dysfunctional political system have many fewer resources for and many more restrictions on their efforts than the for-profit lobbyists that the nonprofit reformers are fighting.

  3. Why won’t we treat nonprofits as equal partners in the economy?
    Related to this, because the nonprofit sector emerged as a side-note to the business-driven economy, nonprofits have always been viewed as secondary to, and thus less valuable and important than, the private sector. But you simply cannot have one without the other. The nonprofit sector often provides the research and development, worker support, quality of life and other services that fuel the success and profits of the private sector. Without the nonprofit sector there would be less profit and a weaker economy. So we have to recognize the critical (and equal) role that nonprofits play in creating a strong economy. And we have to begin investing equally in the success of those nonprofits.

  4. Why are nonprofit boards largely ineffective?
    Another truism of the nonprofit sector is that boards just don’t work. I have yet to meet a nonprofit leader who doesn’t have at least some frustration with her board and many are resigned to their board’s deep dysfunction. It is extremely difficult to corral a group of volunteers, to be sure, but instead of accepting that challenge as a rule, let’s figure out how to fix it. Perhaps greater standards and regulations, perhaps compensation for their efforts — I don’t know what the right answer is, but let’s analyze the root causes of this inefficiency and change it.

  5. How do we direct more money to efforts that result in social change?
    There is much debate about whether donors want to give based on the results a nonprofit creates. But if the government is going to continue to off-load social interventions to the nonprofit sector, we don’t have the luxury of letting the funders of those nonprofits give solely based on emotion, reciprocity, or duty. You may not believe in “effective altruism” (the idea that philanthropy should flow to the most effective social interventions), but the fact remains that with mounting social problems and a resource-constrained and gridlocked government, a growing burden for addressing social challenges is falling to the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits will only be able to rise to this challenge if the solutions that work have enough resources to actually work. So let’s recognize the tension among increasing social problems, less government involvement, and lack of money and figure out how to fix it.

It’s time for bigger conversations. We have to openly face the challenges standing in the way of social change and figure out a way forward together.

Photo Credit: Paul Thompson

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