Nonprofits are typically built in the following way:
1) Someone has a “new idea” that will solve the “most pressing issue” of our time
2) The founder uses their charm, close networks, and good luck in raising money
3) They operationalize their idea by developing programs and filling an office
4) They find ways to show how well their programs are doing without actually addressing whether the world really looks any different because of their programs
5) The cycle continues: restate the vision, get more funding, run programs, overstate impact...
The following are a few of my high-level critiques and observations:
1) There is no rational process that incentivizes real impact
Every nonprofit has a “unique approach” that validates their existence ad infinitum (though they all claim to be working to put themselves out of business). This leads them to have entirely different and thus uncomparable metrics of success, which also undermines the prospects of real partnership and collaboration. If everyone can define success differently, then there cannot be a mechanism that consistently rewards more impactful organizations. This means that funders do not maximize dollar for dollar impact, but instead rely on their gut, being wooed by emotional appeals, or personal pet interests and friendships.
2) “At least we’re doing something” usually means rationalized mediocrity
Nonprofits often have unbelievably audacious visions and rarely hold themselves accountable to audacious impact goals. One example is Teach for America (TFA). TFA is often discussed as a best-in-class nonprofit, and I would agree; they definitely attract top-talent (read John Boumgarden). However, I think they too fall into this category of huge vision with dissonant impact. Wendy Kopp’s vision is “One day, all children...” The average impact of a Corps Member is one tenth of one grade level better than the average (see study). Are we really to believe that this is the strategy that will lead to “One day, all children?” But hey, at least they’re doing something.
Did Gandhi start a nonprofit? Did King? The two most impressive civic leaders of the 20th century impacted world structures without the nonprofit apparatus. There are obviously many great nonprofits out there (see Harlem Children’s Zone), but I think we have become too quick to channel our desire to do good into the segmented, weakly accountable, and largely unimpressive nonprofit sector.
Vaclav Havel, the great Czech dissident and politician, offers us an alternative to the typical nonprofit approach. He says:
We are looking for new scientific recipes, new ideologies, and new institutions to eliminate the dreadful consequences of our previous recipes, ideologies, and institutions [...] We cannot discover a law or theory whose application will eliminate the disastrous consequences of the application of earlier laws and theories.
What we need is something different, something larger. Man’s attitude toward the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered.
We have to release from the sphere of private whim and rejuvenate such forces as a natural, unique, and unrepeatable experience of the world, an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith in the importance of particular measures that do not aspire to be universal [...] The way forward is not in the mere construction of universal systemic solutions. Instead, human uniqueness, human action, and the human spirit must be rehabilitated.
How do we implement Havel’s call for a transformed human consciousness based on justice, compassion, and responsibility? I don’t know, maybe I’ll start a nonprofit.