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Debate snapshot: Are nonprofits lacking the courage to tackle big problems?

Photo credit: Lightspring, Shutterstock

Photo credit: Lightspring, Shutterstock

What does it take to create lasting social change? While many nonprofits start by asking this question and wanting to tackle a big issue, some argue that too many are focusing on short, safe goals instead of getting to the root of many of our social ills.

Bill Shore, Darell Hammond, and Amy Celep, CEOs of Share Our Strength, KaBOOM!, and Community Wealth Partners respectively, co-wrote an article entitled “When Good Is Not Good Enough,” arguing that the sector needs to transition from safe goals that offer short term solutions to bold, difficult goals that will provide long term solutions by attacking the root of social problems. The trio of social entrepreneurs acknowledge the difficulty nonprofits have answering the question, “what does success look like?”

The foundation on which many nonprofits are built is flawed and simplistic, focused on a symptom rather than the underlying set of problems, developed in isolation rather than as part of an integrated system, and organized to administer a narrowly tailored program or benefit rather than generate sustained, significant change for a person or community. As a result, change is incremental, not big or bold enough to make a lasting and transformative impact.

Shore and Hammond go on to talk about the process their organizations went through to be able to begin having a deeper impact. They cite writer Jonathan Kozol’s advice to pick battles big enough to matter, but small enough to win as a defining moment in redefining their goals. The ensuing changes to their organizations led them to have a greater impact on the causes they work for. Aside from having a bold goal, Shore, Hammond, and Celep offer three lessons they learned that will help nonprofits end social ills: mobilize the less engaged, change the conversation, and disrupt the norms.

In response to “When Good Is Not Good Enough,” Cynthia M. Gibson, a nonprofit consultant, Katya F. Smith, CEO of the Full Frame Initiative, Gail B. Nayowith, executive of SCO Family of Services, and Jonathan F. Zaff, senior vice president at America’s Promise Alliance, wrote an article called “To Get Good, You Gotta Dance With The Wicked.” While the group agrees with Shore, et. al’s conclusion, they believe that solving social problems requires a more fluid approach that needs to revolve around communities, not organizations:

We’re not criticizing model-centric nonprofits or romanticizing “people power” as the sole factor in making change. But we’ve learned the hard way that the more an organization positions itself—or its model—at the center of a resolution, the less sustainable the progress it creates.

Among the six “to-dos,” they recommend the importance of considering all stakeholders and their different perspectives, paying special attention to the history of the issue and communities it affects, and that wins may not even be possible.

The writers of both articles agree on crucial point: Nonprofits need to develop the courage to determine what their end goal is and acknowledge the multi-faceted issues they face. Approaching work for the social good with a “business as usual” mode of thinking doesn’t cut it. Bold questions and big solutions to the biggest social problems of the day require an approach that is sustainable and that truly seeks to eradicate the problem. In order to accomplish this, nonprofits need to change just like the problems they face do.

Want to dive deeper into the debate? Stanford Social Innovation Review will be hosting a webinar with Bill Shore, Darell Hammond, and Amy Celep centering on their article, “When Good Is Not Good Enough,” on Tuesday October 8 at 2PM EDT.

3 Comments

  1. It seems like the authors are failing to reach the root of the problem funding. Funding sources want to see short-term quantifiable results, and they do not want to see any one upsetting the political landscape. We had a racist Democratic politician running in our county who was targeting the Latino community. We tried to rally the Latino community to create an early response. they refused because their funding was too closely tied to the Democratic Party. Instead, this politician got elected, created a racist atmosphere which attracted national fascist figures, and eventually ended in a racially motivated murder.

    • Agricanto

      We have seen this in the environmental and even human rights movements. BINGOS, (Big International non-governmental organizations) soften positions on issues or cases because their donors now include major corporations. Even a big award like the Goldman Prize or a McArthtur grant can skew a non-profit away from its core mission or abandon formerly reliable positions. In California, some BINGOS signed on to SB4, which is a bill that failed to regulate the fracking industry and provides a fig leaf for their activity. In Africa, major development projects that will affect millions of people and push them off their land, get barely a soft critique because of desires by BINGOS to have smaller deals in some countries. In Colombia, human rights groups were silenced by their donors for being too critical of the government and not critical enough of rebel groups. I’m sure others can provide examples of high profile NGOs that have sold out to keep their administrators well paid.

  2. I agree with Ian and Agricanto. The terms on which nonprofit organizations receive their funding set the boundaries on what actions they can take. In many cases, funding even determines the direction of the organizations. It’s good that social entrepreneurs are thinking about this problem. Yet they need to be careful about becoming just one more “flavor of the month” in funding. Too many changes in direction can be just as bad as staying on track. They also need to take into account that while we’re trying to change the world, people need to survive in the mean time. That’s getting harder all the time.

    May I make a related point? Nonprofits could be using their ability to communicate in service of broad social goals, but instead, we are using it mainly to raise much-needed funds for ourselves. A more stable base of funding would free us up tremendously. Even with what we have though, nonprofits should think more imaginatively about their communications. I blogged about this at http://dennisfischman.wordpress.com/2013/10/03/are-nonprofits-thinking-too-small/. Please visit and let me know what you think.