Ask someone on the street if there are too many nonprofits addressing the same causes. Most likely, you’ll get a resounding “yes.”
When there’s a crisis, folks are confused as to which relief agency they should give their money. When a friend is diagnosed with cancer, they aren’t sure which organization will make the best use of their donation.
This confusion leads to “drop in the bucket” donations. Folks want to at least doing something, but don’t want to risk throwing their hard-earned money into a black hole.
This behavior stifles the entire nonprofit sector. Folks don’t trust their philanthropy will be effectively stewarded, so don’t give as much as they could. Even worse, folks with track records of investing — philanthropic (aka “social”) entrepreneurs — sit on the sidelines waiting. Waiting for the social benefit sector to do something that, up until now, it has not done well. What?
Partnering to solve problems that can’t be solved in silos.
The nonprofit sector is to blame. Why? Because we haven’t absorbed a lesson every preschooler learns.
How to Share
Here’s what all too often happens:
- Nonprofits hang onto their “stuff” like preschoolers hang onto their toys. They focus too much on infrastructure; too little on vision. Too much on self-interest; too little on impact. Too much on status quo; too little on innovation. They keep on doing the same thing they’ve always done, failing to see there may be a better way. The problem with this is clear. To quote Heraclitus: “You can never step in the same river twice.”
- Well-intentioned people often start new nonprofits that duplicate the missions of existing ones. They have an idea of what they want to accomplish; they don’t do effective research to see who else may already be addressing this problem. They just plunge ahead, often without developing a solid business plan to see if their mission will be sustainable. This leads to unnecessary duplication.
What if stagnant nonprofits could check their egos at the door and (1) partner with those with fresh ideas, and/or (2) shake themselves out of their stupor by eliminating internal silos?
I know this is not an easy thing to accomplish. Egos are tough nuts to crack. And, in the beginning, ego – enthusiasm coupled with a heightened sense of self-esteem — is a useful thing. A core motivator of great achievements. But what worked in the past doesn’t always continue to work. Sometimes, if we can’t let go when the time arrives, ego can lead us seriously astray.
Pride goeth before a fall. Can we catch ourselves before that happens? Yes we can.
Embrace Creativity and Change
“Leadership is about managing change—whether you’re leading a company or leading a country. Things change, and you get creative.” –Lee Iococca
In the digital age, with the pace of change accelerated, the two are strongly linked. Successful nonprofit leadership today relies heavily on the ability to respond effectively to change and to proactively drive change. This mandates continual creativity on the part of leaders. It’s a big burden to shoulder alone.
3 Ways to Shoulder the Burden Together
Become an entrepreneur with a BIG idea.
Inspire others to take a chance with you. Entrepreneurship does not equate with going it alone.
“This defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship – the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.” –Peter Drucker
If you want to attract venture philanthropy, bring something BIG to the table. Work together with government, businesses and individual philanthropists to come up with a way to partner to reach your vision.
What if you stopped duplicating infrastructure, creating massive inefficiencies? What if you focused on the long-term goal – eliminating hunger, annihilating disease, ending pollution, defeating injustice, etc. – rather than the short-term goal of balancing your budget?
Venture philanthropists are turning their attention, and their wealth, towards solving some of the biggest — and most intransigent — problems our world faces. Jeff Skoll, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, are some of the names that come immediately to mind. But there are growing legions of these folks. Forbes published an article with 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneurs. And Stanford Social Innovation Review is a publication dedicated to these innovators.
The bad news: these folks are finding too few effective, vision-focused collaborative nonprofits with which to partner. Because of the sector’s rigidity, and the formidable transaction costs involved in working with entrenched nonprofit infrastructures, social investors are starting their own foundations or working through a number of new models including leveraged nonprofits, social businesses or some hybrid.
The good news: this gives you an opportunity. Both you and they have social impact as your goal; they believe the way you think about impact and the tools you use to achieve it are vastly different. Show them they’re wrong. Show them you think like they do. You’ve got a big idea. You’re nimble and quick. You’re efficient. You’re the opposite of stuck in old patterns.
Get unstuck by eliminating internal silos.
While you’re thinking about how you can get high tech entrepreneurs invested with you to breathe new life into your organization, why not look into a mirror, take some deep cleansing breaths, and see how you might accomplish transformation on your own? One path forward towards eliminating silos is developing an organization-wide culture of philanthropy.
Include everyone in the transformative power of your mission. Do whatever it takes to make sure everyone is on the same page. Rather than looking at “innovation” as being the next “new” event or social media channel or hired fundraiser, look at it as a change in attitude about your entire fundraising process. What if every single volunteer and staff person saw themselves as a fundraiser?
I’m reminded of Daniel Pink’s book, To Sell Is Human, in which he says
“The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness. It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards, and enhanced our daily lives. The capacity to sell isn’t some unnatural adaption to the merciless world of commerce. It is part of who we are.”
Pink says: “We’re all is sales now.” I say: “We’re all in fundraising now.” We’re all involved in the process of inviting donors to invest in our mission to make a difference in the community. It’s not just the province of development staff.
Transform yourself; band together with organizations with similar missions.
The word transformation means “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” What could be more dramatic than to knock down your walls, stop thinking primarily of balancing your budget and staying in business and to begin thinking – first and foremost – about the most efficient and effective way to fulfill your mission?
When organizations and/or staff have been in place for a long period of time, the mission focus can get lost. Inertia sets in. The status quo is accepted. New and/or dissenting voices are squashed. Folks fall into survival mode, desperately seeking to justify their jobs. This serves no one well.
Remember: People give through organizations to reach a valued outcome. People don’t give to organizations Were you to work together with other smart, savvy organizations who also have strong track records of success, might would-be donor-investors feel more inclined to support your endeavors?
Start by asking how you might address your vision if you began from scratch. How would you organize to solve the problem? Forget about your current infrastructure, budget and programs. Remind yourself why you exist, and what might happen were you to cease to exist. Why is your vision critically important… to your community, your country, the world and to the human race?
Revisit your values. What about them is so unique that you see no other organization with which you might partner? When “founders” start a new nonprofit it is often due to something that happens in their personal life. They lose a family member. They are diagnosed with a chronic disease. Too often the first thing these folks do is set up a brand new nonprofit infrastructure. What if, instead, they were to research who else out there was trying to address the same or a similar problem? Might there not be strength in numbers?
EXAMPLE: Two organizations; Shared mission and values
I worked with a food bank that did a truly effective job feeding the hungry in their community. They hired excellent staff, built an outstanding and dedicated board who embraced their role as both stewards and fundraisers, developed efficient infrastructure and management systems and created an integrated development (marketing and fundraising) department that enabled them to generate the donor-investments necessary to sustain and grow their mission.
Across the bay a different food bank was struggling. Their board was ineffective and lacked understanding of their role. They fell into “founder syndrome” and fought to balance their budget when the founder retired. They were floundering. They asked the successful food bank to help them. Before too long, the successful organization was providing more food to the unsuccessful organization’s constituents than they were themselves. But it was being done inefficiently. Infrastructure was being duplicated. Communication was lacking. There were loads of challenges, until…
The two food banks decided to merge. They hired a facilitator and began to understand they shared a mission. They were not competitors. One was not good; the other bad. They realized if they worked together they’d be stronger, and everyone – staff, board and the community – would benefit. The donors agreed! After the merger fundraising increased from donors in both geographic regions as new trust and respect was built. A true win/win.
Networked Action for Social Impact
With or without you, the future of philanthropy will look very different.
A large gap exists between the world of organized philanthropy and today’s world of social action. Some call the current zeitgeist second curve philanthropy. A host of highly networked new social actors, used to moving fast and embracing multiple failures on their path towards creating change, are getting a lot done. But imagine how much more could be accomplished were they to partner with established nonprofits with a wealth of wisdom, resources, and tools developed over decades?
For this to happen requires nonprofits to learn more about what it takes to create change in the 21st century. Avoid black-and-white thinking. Use gray areas to imagine new possibilities. Get more comfortable embracing your errors; don’t let them stop you. Reimagine the way you work. Bigger, faster and less risk averse.
It is only by working together towards a common vision that we will be able to unlock society’s full potential to effect social change.
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This post first appeared as a guest post on the Guidestar blog, May 13, 2015.
Toddler Photo by Sabine75; on Flickr. Other Photos by Freedigitalphotos.com
You are SO right, Claire….but “rots a ruck!” I remember years ago the Sacramento CA Comm Fdn had requests for support from 4 groups feeding the homeless. The Fdn said “bring us ONE proposal, working together, and we’ll fund you big time!” And it never happened, sadly… turf fights, etc etc….didn’t want to close offices with staff who depended on the salaries, combined boards would be too big but who would step down…I think they tried, but couldn’t make it happen 🙁
Thanks for relating this story Margie. Change is hard, and it takes both leadership, creativity and a willingness to change. Have others had similar experiences?
Claire, I agree with much of what you’ve outlined in your post. However, I have a problem with your suggestion that there are too many nonprofit organizations and that that is hurting philanthropy. You stated, “This behavior stifles the entire nonprofit sector. Folks don’t trust their philanthropy will be effectively stewarded, so don’t give as much as they could.” The reality is that there is little statistical evidence that the proliferation of nonprofit organizations has had a negative affect on philanthropy. In fact, the statistics show that while the number of charities has exploded over the past several decades, philanthropy has remained relatively fixed at two percent of GDP.
While service efficiencies can be gained from a consolidation and while certain philanthropic gains might be garnered in the process on a case-by-case basis, the reality is that a consolidation will not likely lead to greater philanthropy. There are other, bigger issues at play.
As for what the future holds, among other things, we’ll see the creation of more nonprofit organizations and more socially responsible businesses that blur the line between for-profit and nonprofit.
By the way, I don’t consider the creation of new nonprofits to be inherently problematic. Instead, I see many of these new organizations being creative and nimble in ways established organizations are not. The free-market is a good thing, even in the nonprofit sector.
You make some excellent points Michael. And, yes, I know that philanthropy tends to stay relatively constant as a factor of GDP. I do wonder, however, if it just might increase were the proliferation of duplicative nonprofits to cease. It’s hard to know, because it’s always been thus.
That being said, I do agree there will be a metamorphosis of a sort, with more socially responsible businesses that blur the line. Some of the money that used to go to philanthropy will go into these social businesses. Hmmn…
Whether their is more philanthropy or less, the real key is whether there is more progress (or less) towards solving some or our world’s most compelling problems. Were less resources going into duplication of infrastructures, it might be possible to put some of this human and financial energy into become more effective at addressing these issues.
Our world is networked in a way previously unimaginable to most of us. We no longer need to work in silos, constantly reinventing the wheel. Wouldn’t it be nice to create greater collaboration? Of course, I’d not support this if it slowed everyone down. I agree that being creative and nimble and open to change are crucial attributes of the modern nonprofit or social business.
Thanks again for your always thoughtful comments and wisdom.