I think it's human nature for people involved with a successful, strong organization to want it to grow or to see growth as a measure of success. In the non-profit arena, however, growth may or may not be the right objective, particularly if there are others serving the same or similar space. I’ve found it interesting and heart-warming to see organizations that have made decisions that serve the larger good, even when those decisions did not enlarge their organizations. We recently worked with Hole in the Wall Gang Camp which offers summer overnight camp and year-round programming for thousands of seriously ill children in the Northeast. Founded by Paul Newman and with a legacy of offering incredibly powerful and transformative experiences for kids, their fundraising and investment management ability has put them in a solid financial position. In serving the greater good, they have consistently used some of their funds to support sister camps which offer similar summer camp programs for seriously ill children. In the end, what matters to Hole in the Wall is getting more kids with life-threatening illnesses to camp, wherever they happen to be.
Another organization which made a similar kind of decision is Citymeals-on-Wheels, which delivers meals to homebound elderly New Yorkers primarily on weekends and holidays. During our work with them, we realized that despite their great work, there was still a huge unmet demand for food for the elderly who could not otherwise access it. Clearly they would make efforts to fill that gap, but a key insight during the work was that a large number of people who were eligible for food stamps weren’t using them. In their population, this could likely be because they couldn’t get to the store or other places to access the benefits; in other words, funding was available for these New Yorkers’ food but was going unused for this population. So, in addition to their own programmatic efforts, they invested effort to enable more of the homebound elderly to access food stamp benefits and therefore get the food they needed. This investment didn’t accrue benefit to the bottom line for Citymeals, but had the potential to make a huge difference in reducing the number of elderly residents of New York City going hungry.
A third organization that comes to mind is the Roadrunner Food Bank of New Mexico, the largest food bank in the state. With a list of 40,000 residents being served by the organization throughout New Mexico, they were reaching a huge number of people in need. Roadrunner Food Bank’s executive director realized that this connection to these clients was an asset that agencies in public health, family planning, etc. were spending a lot of time and money to recreate. And that if there were a way to collaborate effectively with these agencies, the well-being of her clients would be better served. As a result, they are in the beginning stages of exploring the collaboration possibilities to improve service and benefits throughout New Mexico.
natural tendency to think about how to do more of what they do, as opposed to taking a look at all the players in the field and assessing what the need is.
Amidst a sea of socially-minded organizations, the challenge for today’s non-profits is to keep their eye
on the larger goal even when it means doing that which is not as self-serving.