Ask Big Questions is an organization that encourages listening replete with curiosity, open-mindedness, attentiveness and good will.
When we think of successful nonprofits, we think of the benefits they create for society: how many children they serve; how many hungry people they feed; or how many acres of wetlands have been preserved. We rarely consider the societal benefit of jobs created. Yet, the nonprofit sector provides 10% of the jobs in the United States. Recently, when interviewing a number of executives of large nonprofits about the health of their organizations, I was struck by how often they had jobs on their minds. During economically tough times, a major focus of theirs was to provide employment, and to keep people employed. While they knew that their first responsibility as a nonprofit was to achieve the organization's mission, they also saw their responsibility to keep their workers working, and thus sustain the benefits this employment provided to the broader community.
In seeking to retain jobs while maintaining or increasing mission impact, they got creative. Some looked for new businesses they could enter. Some looked for merger candidates. Others banked on future opportunities as yet undefined, spending down assets to keep their work and their workforce going.
Through these interviews, I was struck by the balance these leaders were seeking to achieve. Their decisions were not easy. They cared about their organization's mission --and -- they were compassionate and attentive to the needs of their workforce and sought to maintain jobs in a tough economy. Knowing that their employees were critical to the their organization's ability to achieve its mission, they found ways to retain those employees. I saw nonprofits not only benefiting society through their mission, they were also benefiting society by creating jobs.
A recent article here in the Nonprofit Quarterly provides an interesting overview of the economic impact of the growing nonprofit sector, with relevance to this blog post.
I recently worked for a foundation that had admirable aspirations of creating large scale social change, potentially through a social movement. As we researched the business of social movement building, it proved to be a topic mired in caveats. In speaking with various funders throughout the country, we found that organizations’ timelines for shifting toward social movement building is a great unknown. Funders seeking to fuel this kind of change are in various stages along their journey, as shown by the graphic below. Some organizations have been on this trajectory for decades, while others are just beginning. But in every case, the tactical shift to building social movements as a means to fueling societal change certainly did not happen overnight.
One of the primary hesitations from these funders is their resistance to leading the social movement. The big question that these funders are grappling with is “how do we make a movement happen, without being the movement?” The funders understand that a social movement cannot be dependent on one organization, but to be successful, a movement must take on a life of its own, with the vision and energy coming from the community. Foundations can fuel the movement via funds, capacity building and strategic support during the ebbing periods, but cannot be the movement itself.
Funders’ apprehension to the term “social movement building” itself also stood out. The majority of funders with whom we talked noted that this language can be counter-productive. Even if they internally understand they are using the tactics of social movement building, they use language such as collaboration, networks and ecosystem to represent their approach, while avoiding the potentially stigmatized label.
It seems that a sizeable number of funders are more thoughtfully seeking long-term, deep social changes, requiring the tactics of social movement funding. An admirable goal, foundations should be prepared for a very long-term, difficult-to-define, ever-evolving journey.
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.
There is a book you should read: Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. It turned my thinking around. For me it clarified how social media and web communities are becoming an increasingly important way to build meaningful business relationships.
I have heard critics say that social media is downgrading our interactions into large quantities of relationship snippets. However, I find myself observing that a whole new order of social interaction is emerging, and we all are in the process of learning it.
When Brogan and Smith urge us to be kind, humble, on time, and helpful in our web interactions, it becomes an important admonishment as I rush through my web communications and emails. A little more care in my communications often leads to heartfelt interchange. In fact, I find web technology allows us to connect in genuine and helpful ways with a greater span of interaction than ever before. Used well, we will all be emotionally and spiritually richer for it.
What do you think? Leave us a comment.
I came to my work in the social sector with a desire for selfless service. Perhaps you did too. I hope to make the world a better place, to leave everyone I meet a little better off. But these aspirations can get eclipsed by my self-oriented desires. Of course, there is benefit in working for self-fulfillment. But if my dominant urge is to build my own stature, my ability to further the common good is attenuated. My choices become subtly directed towards enhancing myself and I become less creative and vital in furthering others.
Facilitating a Board retreat at Garrison Institute, I am reminded of my commitment to selfless service. The wisdom of contemplative practice, as furthered by that institution, increases my awareness that my success is interlinked with your success. It is through benefiting others that my greatest rewards will come.
All the spiritual traditions teach that deep happiness comes from serving others. This, ultimately, is what I seek.