In my last post, I discussed the exchange on Nonprofit Quarterly between the always provocative Bill Schambra and the current president and immediate past president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation about strategy.
Another piece that got my attention this month—which also goes in part to strategy—is “When Good Is Not Good Enough,“ by Bill Shore, Darell Hammond, and Amy Celep. The authors tell the story of Shore’s and Hammond’s remarkable and (rightly) widely recognized nonprofits, Share Our Strength and KaBOOM!. Their organizations, they write in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, were successes by most normal measures—“growing rapidly, engaging numerous partners, and improving the lives of tens of millions of children.”
But all was not well.
“All the while, the problems we were tackling—hunger and the lack of opportunities to play—were getting worse,” they write. They describe their organizations’ realizations that they needed to do more, and their resulting pivots:
- to embrace a “bold goal;”
- to “open up the circle” of stakeholders;
- to “change the conversation;” and
- to “disrupt the norms.”
They tell their stories with humility when it comes to where they believe they have gone wrong, though it was less clear to me that their new directions are yielding—or will yield—all that is hoped.
To their credit, while they offer up their four changes in direction with the clear hope and belief that these insights may be more broadly applicable to other nonprofits, they stop short of declaring them applicable to all, as so many authors of this genre of article tend to do.
But they also rather stingingly indict what they see as the “pathology” of the nonprofit sector with broad-brushed generalizations—too broad, in my view—and the implication that nonprofits are timid.
“Our stories are all too familiar,” they write. “The foundation on which many nonprofits are built is flawed and simplistic, focused on a symptom rather than the underlying 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.”
The change delivered, they argue, is “not big or bold enough to make a lasting and transformative impact.”
Look, I appreciate very much their argument that we cannot become complacent, or be satisfied with only incremental progress. At the same time, I feel the generalizations about the sector go too far.
The article raised a lot of difficult questions for me.
- What is the best approach to goal setting for nonprofits or, for that matter, for foundations? Should organizations go after the big, ambitious, difficult-to-reach goal, as Jim Collins famously urged companies to do? Or should they focus on achievable goals that reflect incremental progress?
- Should nonprofits focus on the “underlying problems” rather than the “symptoms” of our big challenges as Shore, Hammond, and Celep seem to argue? Or are we best off with a diversity of approaches? For example, do we want nonprofits only focusing on preventing the abuse and neglect that leads children to end up in foster care, or do we also want organizations that seek to improve life outcomes for those in the foster care system? Might diversity in approaches be best, from an outcomes perspective?
- What is the role of government, and of every one of us as citizens, when it comes to issues such as child hunger or the promotion of play among children? Can we reasonably hold the nonprofit sector responsible for a lack of greater progress on these issues? Or should we also be pointing the finger at our government—indeed at ourselves as voters and citizens? Related, what does it say about our society when the building of a playground requires a corporate sponsorship, and when that doesn’t seem to strike anyone as odd?
- How do we measure success? This is related to the goal question and, I wonder, when is it appropriate to look for sustained change in the life trajectories of those served by nonprofits as the right measure and when is a lower bar reasonable? (My family writes a small check or two annually to Horizons for Homeless Children, which provides high quality pre-school to homeless kids in Massachusetts. Is it problematic that I would support this organization even if it could not be shown that this intervention, in isolation, leads to better life outcomes? That I want homeless kids to have a safe place to go and the same kind of environment that other kids enjoy even if it alone is not enough to change lives decades hence?)
I am unsure of my own answers to some of these questions. We debate them all the time here at CEP.
And in some cases where I am more sure what I think, I think my answers would differ from those of Shore, Hammond, and Celep.
But I appreciate the fact that they do not pretend to have all the answers, either. And I appreciate that they provoked the questions.
Phil Buchanan is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and a regular columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @philCEP.