Mike Shaver is CEO at BrightPoint, an organization that helps communities and families remove the causes and conditions of poverty.
Einstein once famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” For the nonprofit social service sector, I’d argue that the definition of insanity is to keep doing what we have been doing and expect better outcomes while social problems get worse. To take that even further, we risk losing the faith of our funding community if we fail to innovate and change.
We cannot assume our survival is guaranteed. For too long, we have been driven by scarcity thinking, having no choice but to do our best with limited and conditional funding. This mindset shapes how we communicate. And if we continue arguing for scarce resources, that is all we will ever attract.
My peers (and I have been tempted to do it, too) will even accept funding for work they know is not effective and not aligned with their mission and desired impact. Why? Because they are in survival mode. This is a hard job—harder than leading a for-profit organization—and the true north for nonprofit leaders is always, “What can I do for those I’m serving today?” But that immediate focus has created a form of myopia that has obscured the long-term view. So my rally cry is that we have to do better.
While there are no easy answers, I believe solutions will only come from partnering with like-minded organizations to address the root causes of complex social problems. Our ultimate vision should be to put ourselves out of business when the families who need us now do not need our help in a year’s time. But first, let’s get honest about how we got here.
The Truth About Our Shortsightedness
Too many leaders in the nonprofit sector are focused on the urgent needs of the populations they serve while fighting their own day-to-day problems, like not being able to fill critical positions, not having a competitive salary structure, having a shortage of working capital to innovate and not having enough money to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs.
Organizationally, the mentality is: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and figure it out.” Social service organizations are doing more of this work today than government—on behalf of government—than at any point over the past 30 years. We are 50 years into the privatization of social services and are still on the treadmill of chasing problems, not solutions.
It is clear that the scarcity mindset is getting in the way of breaking into new ways of working and collaborating. Our service strategy needs to be innovative and disruptive, and we need to be rigorous about evaluating our impact. The issue with this approach is the answers are still unknown—and funders are uncomfortable with uncertainty. So while we have to hold ourselves to a different standard, the challenge is to get funders to understand that they, too, need change.
Clarifying Our Theory Of Change
To drive a long-term strategy, we need a lot more clarity as organizations about our theory of change. Defining outcomes for specific programs, such as a substance-abuse treatment program, is easier because you can identify inputs (counseling, treatment, in-patient rehab), target populations and expected outcomes. But organizations get stuck defining broader social outcomes because they have many different programs and serve many populations.
It is not enough to have good intentions. We must ask: How is a family, community or child sustainably better for having stepped through our doors? Foster care and child welfare, for example, have risen as responses to the problem of child maltreatment. But the proven solutions occur earlier: access to high-quality early childhood services, home-visiting services and financial support for families.
A similar principle applies to food pantries. There are big social determinants of food insecurity that transcend the ability of food pantries to solve the issue. As soon as we discover how complex the underlying causes are, it is impossible to imagine that any single organization can solve them all in isolation. The sector needs strategic partnerships to take our solutions to the next level.
Partnerships For Transformation
Funders and organizations have been like the allegorical wise men feeling their way around an elephant while blindfolded. They each understand their part but cannot see that they are all feeling the same beast. The system’s siloed approach to addressing the large body of social issues is almost the perfect way not to create long-term solutions.
Government, for its part, is good at finding efficient solutions through pulling the big levers but is not so good at effective solutions when they fall outside those familiar switches. So we need to build and sustain partnerships with government funders, other social services organizations and private funders where we work in unison across the social services ecosystem.
Corporate America has a unique role to play. The private sector has the influence to break through the scarcity mindset, whether in tackling housing shortages, food insecurity or child maltreatment. In the latter case, think of it as enlisting help from outside our walls to engage a broader group of advocates to champion the importance of supporting mothers and fathers with stability and economic security, allowing them to influence the single biggest determinant of a healthy childhood: effective parenting.
This kind of transformation requires what Corporate America does best—innovation and disruption—as well as the flexibility from our funders to test what works and what doesn’t and invest in sustainable solutions.
Saying The Quiet Part Out Loud
If we want to treat the root causes of the many ills affecting society for long-term change, we must break the chains of scarcity thinking. A narrow band of my colleagues are having these kinds of conversations with funders, public and private. But these conversations need to be more commonplace and with broader participation from a wider group of stakeholders. This is what chasing solutions to the most challenging of our social problems should look like. Everybody hates disruption, but it is needed to truly serve our communities and fulfill our larger mission. If not now, when?
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